On the Great Dunes' Behest
Yellow dunes smouldered under eternal heat. A blister of life and hope, an ocean of sand spreading as far as eyes could see. Although a place life could not thrive, miniscule flaws on the surface marked such a rarity. Footsteps stretched beyond the waves, leading to an enormous pit where in a deep chasm hundreds of figures toiled.
Sweat vanished under the sun as they swung heavy tools, cracked the dense rock and scratched at the glistening ore. Humanoid, but each different in their own way, toiled and died, then got replaced and later died again. Like an exhausted horse, they fell heavily on the ground, chests heaving and burning with dust.
White men stalked like tigers from above the scaffolds. They drank, ate and relaxed in shades makeshift roofs created. Whips adorned their hips and gold loosely hung from their baggy clothes. With eyes of a vulture they glanced down at the slaves, scorn-filled faces spitting at them and cursing in whatever vocabulary they knew.
Ziyaad felt their loathing on his shoulders and back, but didn’t move his eyes from the pickaxe in his hands. Dark like the handle, fingers dug into creases formed by endless work.
Slaves straightened their backs at the sudden growls. But he was not concerned and lazily turned towards his two brothers. They were easily twice his height and their arms alone were thicker than his body. Stretched cloth covered their bulking chests, ones of muscle so strong it tensed like the chain on his neck. The cloth fought their bulk, as if about to rip. He stared into their green eyes, so small they seemed on those bald heads. Chains rattled as he returned to cracking the deposit of white.
“What is it? If it’s that, then do it here. You know there are no breaks.”
Their fat noses swelled and eyebrows linked, a giant’s frown, and a guttural hiss, feral and horrifying, came through the yellowing teeth. They stomped their feet, like children throwing a tantrum, except they were thrice his age and strong enough to lift a house. After stomping around angrily, the one about a pinkie finger’s width shorter than the other, lowered towards Ziyaad’s ear.
“Run?” It whispered, a waft of rotten vegetables attacking his senses. Judging from the repeated glances of the other slaves it wasn’t much of a whisper.
“Ug, no,” Ziyaad shook his head and looked at the white conquerors. Thankfully they didn’t bother themselves with listening in. “There’s nowhere to run.”
“Noooo? Goooo?” Ug grabbed his bald head. “With?”
The ground thundered as the giant rolled on the ground, Ziyaad’s heart doing the same. He thought about freedom every day, but it was just a harmless fantasy, something that distracted from reality and things he’s seen. His brothers often pestered him about escape. Now though… it was different.
“Comee. Wiith!” Another giant, Bug, roared out.
It was as if a grain of hope landed before Ziyaad. He who was born in the deserts, now sapped by the victor of an ancient war, never left further than his chain allowed. Forests, oceans, plains of grain: all of them were but words without image, feeling and memory. In this temporary moment, temptation, elation and finally desire, pulled him to pieces.
But what if, what if it’s not true? What if the land beyond the horizon is the same as here? What if they were all lies? The sand, stone and dust felt awfully cold at the thought.
“…no,” he swallowed what felt like a rock. “No.”
The giants calmed, quieted, and, after showing a face Ziyaad could not grasp the meaning of, returned to work.
He continued swinging his pickaxe for the thousandth time, pulling the rubble and poking it in search of meaningless glint, and… stopped. Sweat slowly trickled down his fingers as he felt it. The gaze from the sky. A ghastly moment.
His life had gone by in a flash. A veteran of three quarries at the cost of 30 years of life. Friends dying left, right and centre, his unit was now a group of complete strangers. The faces of those firsts already blurred in his memory, names were forgotten. Only his brothers remained.
Found among sacks of grain as unneeded baggage, they fought fearlessly to keep him alive in this place. Basically raised by them, he in turn looked after them. All he had was them and skin thick as hide. Hardened by flagging and blazing sun, work and searing flesh led his life. Abandoning everything was impossible, even for a dream.
A hissing whip passed his cheek and he jumped in surprise. Pulled out of the unusual atmosphere, there stood a conqueror draped in cloth. He said something, but Ziyaad no longer listened.
In a daze, he collected the giants and walked with the white one. Up the endless creaky stairs and out of the quarry, into the boundless desert and towards the sun. The vast horizon that seemed endless distorted due to scorching heat, as if the end of the world warped like a snake. His brothers growled at the sight, it had always disturbed them.
Trudging through the boiling sand, they walked a hundred or so steps away from the quarry, through tents and smell of booze and food, where a sole camel was tied to a pole. The sad creature stared at Ziyaad as it chowed on grain.
The guard mounted the camel and moved in a trot. They followed after for an hour, the desert knew how to lie about its length, until the sight of a giant river came. It bloomed, light cracking and shooting out in all directions from its surface.
A tiny town spread along the river, half wooden half stone, and far away a giant structure floated on the water. The ship used the power of Pictus, the great river before him, to move ceaselessly and tirelessly. The conquerors, those that sometimes called themselves Caratians, used it fifty years ago to take over the forgotten kingdom that was once here. When Ziyaad was but a newborn, they enslaved the remnants of his tribe and many others. It seems that by now the white ones began relying on unfortunate souls from beyond the desert.
He stopped gawking and followed the camel’s tail until they entered the town and reached the pier. Men wrapped in armor unloaded humans one after the other and spoke in dozens of languages.
Today was the day of fresh slaves. Among the bunch that had been offloaded was a human the likes of which Ziyaad has never seen. Neither white nor black, but grey, just like the clouds before rain. Bald and with one arm, he was pushed around by a small, wrinkly child, a dwarf. When he thought no more surprises were in store, an even larger figure came out. Chained and escorted by five humans in armour, it was a man-beast covered in scale.
How far do their hands reach…?
The same weekly procedure took place. Conquerors counted the heads, wrote them down and exchanged bags. Except it never took as long as it did now. The slave trader and a Caratian seemed to disagree on something.
“The lizard is twenty,” the man in armour and a spiky beard spoke. “Twen-ty. Are you deaf?”
The white one began shouting back something in their foreign tongue. It was so weird even the iron men were confused on what was being said.
“…I’ll be damned and fucked ten times over,” eventually he gave in and grabbed the pouch. “Take the fucking lizard I don’t care anymore. I won’t have him on my ship for another day.”
As such the ship readied to leave immediately, whips sounding and sails rising. In the meanwhile, the conquerors hurried to distribute the manpower they just bought. They shouted, cursed and blabbered in their language, waving at the sky or kicking sand around. It seems the sun annoyed them more than usual. Ziyaad too felt it grow hotter.
In the next ten minutes the white ones living in the town freely ordered the slaves around. Human slaves gasped at the giants, some even screamed, but Ziyaad didn’t pay them attention anymore. As told, he picked up a crate and moved to the front. He was to lead them all the way back.
When everyone readied to move out, something within the box rolled. No, it was someone moving inside. His heart skipped a beat and he stopped, the line behind him halting as well. Immediately, a whip hissed, but he stayed frozen. Slow realization crept as he heard muted crying from the inside.
“Move you damned devil!”
A six-headed snake hissed this time though he only felt the boiling blood on his back. A kick came but again he didn’t budge. Other guards gathered and took the chance to kick, punch and take out their anger on him. He fell to his knee, unable to stand after all of that.
One of them, their leader as his robe was marked by a gem, approached. Saying something Ziyaad didn’t understand, he crouched down and again whispered in words that Ziyaad this time took for cursing. It sounded just like that. Angry, incoherent and one-sided.
A moment later he stood up and gestured towards the box. In bare moments it was snatched from his hands and cracked opened. To everyone’s but Ziyaad’s surprise a little girl rolled out onto the sand. Her black hair and skin was just like his.
“Tsk, those fucks,” their leader turned towards the ship. In his eyes a fire was lit. “Kill her. We can’t be bothered with a useless mouth.”
No one stepped up for the task.
“Fine. You, black one. Do it,” a dagger landed in the sand. “Or I’ll gut you like a fish.”
The next moments were a haze. Ziyaad clenched the handle, but it weighed more than a block of stone. How did it lead to this?
“Go on, hurry up.”
‘It’s just a child,’ he wanted to say after seeing her innocent, teared up face, but knew they wouldn’t listen.
Small, not even to his hip, he had a feeling she wasn’t even five. How could her life end so abruptly? Even if he threw living bodies away, sentencing them to death, even if he buried plenty still gasping for breath, how could he do the same for her with this blade? Her whole life was ah-
He looked down at his black feet, forcefully stopping that silly thought. The sight seemed the same, no matter the age. Sand and him, now a blade. Where will this lead? Just like him, the girl will never feel joy, never taste freedom. Killing her would save him, but did he want to be saved?
“I’ll gut you,” reminded the voice, so close to his ear it sounded like a thought of his own.
His hand tensed around the hilt, his body ushered him to move, run, attack. Anything but stay still. Anything to release this choking feeling in his chest.
“Alright. On his knees.”
From behind hands reached out, twisting his arms. A kick in his leg and he was on his knees.
“Hmm, no. Lay him down. He deserves death worthy of a worm. We’ll fix the mistake of our predecessors.”
With a thwack in the scalp he ate sand and white blinked in his sight. Laying on the scorching sand his heart beat like crazy. His muscles tensed, he writhed just like that man said, a worm. He wanted to scream and curse them all or to beg for forgiveness and help.
Instead, he just looked at the slaves and the girl. All in his sight, they stared not knowing what’s next. He had no clue either.
The sky shifted, clouds moved and the sun burned into his eyes. He saw wings and a golden arc. A lady and an endless cloth. A path of bloody soil. His veins boiled as he wondered if he had finally lost it. The sand singed black, smoke entered his nostrils.
Perhaps it was Ug, he honestly couldn’t tell them apart, who moved first. A roar like the sun, like the death worm or collapsing mine. He ran through the sand and scattered everything into dust. Men, women, the old. All whom wore white, all whom had weapons. Screams, begging and shouting. The breeze of iron and coal…
…a song sung as blood soaked the sand.