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The carriage stops suddenly, startling Inlan from sleep. Will strokes her hand reassuringly and she forces a smile, before laying her cheek against his shoulder. Two weeks ago her dark hair smelled like raspberries; now it stinks of the desert. On the bench opposite, Nurak absently fingers his snake-crested ring, and grins as he catches Will watching, showing the yellow teeth between his sharp, black beard. He has the same dark eyes as Inlan; the same sandy-colored face; but his skin is leathery (not soft like her’s) and his brow is thick and his nose large and crooked, hovering above his mouth like the rim of the top-hat over his forehead.

“My Sister,” he starts, leaning across to Inlan. “We are here, my Sister, praise God, we have arrived.”

He closes his eyes and makes a prayer, alternating his hands between the triangular incisions on both his cheeks, then studies Inlan as she tries to repeat it.

“Gone so long, my Sister,” he laughs, and hits her playfully on the shoulder.

Inlan’s fingers dig into Will’s hand.

The door creaks open and sand and sunlight rush into the gloomy carriage. Will shields his eyes. There are figures outside.

“Come,” Nurak gestures.

Will follows him down from the carriage and then turns help Inlan with the long dress caught beneath her sandals, while Nurak gives his cloak to a slave. Another slave helps the driver, while another pours water on the horses. One slave with blistered hands holds out mugs of water. Inlan takes a sip and hands the mug back. Will gulps a full mug down and splashes some on his face, then thanks the slave. Nurak squints at him quizzically, before marching off towards the village, satin robe blowing in the desert wind.

“Should I not have done that?” Will asks Inlan, who chuckles knowingly and reminds him not to worry, as she links her arm under his.

The village sits in the shadow of a stone pyramid - a temple, according to Inlan - smaller than she described but fascinating nevertheless to Will. Although the existence of these structures is generally acknowledged, Will could find very little related literature in the University library. He’d expected as much though, given the un-enlightened attitude of most scholars to the so-called primitives - an attitude that he had perhaps, ashamedly, once shared - until he met Inlan. The village itself is large, comprised of a hundred or more clay houses packed tightly together, separated by narrow passageways where pigs whine and chickens and crows peck at the dirt. As Nurak leads them on, women bow their heads and cover their faces with scarves, while men stop working and stare with glassy eyes. A group of half-naked boys wrestle in straw, while the sound of girls chanting escapes from an open window, near an old man who whistles the same tune while tending to his goats. All the while a dark-robed figure looks out over the village from the highest stair on the pyramid, staff in hand. Imagine, if Will could be the first scholar to document these people, to learn their ways, to understand their beliefs and customs - imagine, if he could teach them Commonwealth values and freedoms and democratic practices and show all those other scholars who think them primitive that ...

“Will?” Inlan interrupts, startling him. “This way.”

Will follows after her, straightening his top-hat and tightening the red scarf against his shirt collar. He doesn’t ask her about the man on the pyramid, or why she looked twice.

Nurak leads them down an alley near the edge of the village and through the open door of a clay house like any other. The room they enter is dark and stuffy. Light from a narrow window pierces through dust and sweet, smelling steam, revealing a man perched at a wooden table, and two other men, striding out of the darkness behind him. Will hesitates, but Inlan steps forward timidly to meet them. The two men wear robes like Nurak, and they proceed to perform the same prayer, touching triangular incisions on their cheeks in the same way, before embracing Inlan as their sister. The two brothers then quickly part as the older man climbs from behind the table. His hair and moustache are not yet grey, but he is thin and frail and shuffles carefully, neck bent as though he were carrying a heavy bag. He stops in front of Inlan and inspects her intensely from head to toe like a man buying a horse. She fidgets and throws a troubled glance at Nurak, when suddenly the older man’s face softens and he smiles and throws his arms out towards her.

“My Daughter, my Daughter,” he repeats, close to tears. “Gone so long, my Daughter.”

He pulls her head in tight to his chest and kisses her hair. Inlan wipes her eyes and sighs with relief.

“Father,” she says, leaving his embrace and reaching for Will’s hand. “This is my husband, his name …”

“Nurak!” Father barks suddenly, causing a slave quietly tending to the steaming pot in the corner to drop her spoon. “What is this?”

He marches over to Nurak and snatches the top-hat from his head. Will quickly removes his own and blushes intensely. Nurak protests half-heartedly, mutters something about fashion in the Commonwealth - just a souvenir he picked up on his travels while searching for Inlan like Father wanted. Father slaps him on the cheek and points to the door. Nurak shrinks away submissively.

“Sit,” Father gestures, returning to Will and Inlan, before shuffling back into his chair and dropping the hat onto the table in front of him.

His sons stand flanking him. Inlan sits down opposite. Will climbs in beside her and lifts his head to find her father’s baggy eyes contemplating him. Is it sadness in his face? Or something else? Will blushes and breaks the gaze. Father smirks.

“Where is Mama?” Inlan asks.

“Soon, my Daughter, soon. She has missed you greatly. Very hurt she was,” he says, shaking his head. “Very hurt.”

He wears a snake-crested ring on his finger, identical to Nurak’s. Will notices that the other two sons wear them too.

“Are you hungry?” Father asks Inlan, and then claps at the slave by the pot before receiving an answer. “Food, now.”

The dishes are served hastily. A sweet-smelling stew, like one that Inlan has made before - tastes like it too, Will realises - thicker and spicier than anything else in the Commonwealth.

“You like it?” Father asks Inlan, who nods greedily. “It was your favourite. I remember.”

Somewhere outside a door opens. A woman sobs. The door bangs shut. Inlan stops eating and glances up to the small window near the ceiling.

“How are you, my Daughter?” Father asks, clasping her hand so that she turns back to face him. “Tell me how you are.”

She’s well, she tells him - she works at a tavern in Lyndin, she tells him - that’s where she met Will - he was a student at the University - praise god Father, the University, if only you could see how beautiful it is - and Lyndin, if only you could see that - there are trains and huge ships and everything is made out of stone sometimes hundreds of feet into the sky and everything is powered by steam and everyone is free even the woman and there are no slaves and …

“A tavern?” Father interrupts.

Inlan nods.

“You are a servant?” he asks, as the slave serves water.

“I am free, Father,” she gulps, but holds his stare.

He goes back to eating. The slaves never make eye-contact, Will realises, as he watches the woman walk back to her pot. They keep their heads bowed at all times and move in and out of their master’s attention quickly and fearfully. Perhaps at some point he’ll be able to introduce them to Professor Wilber’s work on the immorality of slavery, perhaps - dreadfully unpleasant business though, to criticize another’s culture, even if one knows it be immoral.

“Your sister married,” Father says, finishing his meal.

Inlan stops eating. There are footsteps at the door. Nurak is back. Someone is with him.

“To whom?” Inlan replies.

Father points at the newcomer.

A bare-chested twig of a man approaches the table, glistening with sweat from a morning's work, eyes bulging like a starving predator.

“Hello, my Promised,” he says quietly, leaning in and sniffing her, before planting a loud, wet kiss on her cheek. “So beautiful.”

“Your sister is a good woman,” Father says, as the newcomer stands beside him, glaring at Will. “Your sister is an honest woman. Your sister fears God and honours her Father.”

A chant is growing somewhere outside. The two brothers stride to opposite ends of the table, as Nurak grasps the back of Will’s chair, toothy grin now stitched into his face. Nurak told Inlan that Father loves her; he told her that Father forgives her. Will told her that everyone has the right to life and freedom; he told her that a father must respect the wishes of his daughter. Inlan reminded Will that he’d never left the Commonwealth.

“My daughter,” Father weeps, head in hands. “My Daughter.”

The chanting grows louder. It’s approaching the window when Nurak suddenly joins in:

“God defend us from the serpent!”

Followed by his brothers:

“God defend us from the serpent!”

They spit out the line more venomously with each repetition.

“God defend us from the serpent!”

Will’s arms are seized. His feet leave the floor. The chair crashes to the ground. Inlan screams and Will cries out in vain, entangled by a net of arms and legs. He feels the heat of the sun again. The chanting is all around. More hands join in, grabbing his legs, his arms, his back, his face. The pace quickens.

“Inlan!” a shriek from somewhere. “Inlan!”

“Mama, help me, mama!”

“Mercy, mercy,” a faint response, smothered by the chanting crowd.

Beneath the mass of galloping feet, rocky ground eventually gives way to soft sand, which Will comes up spitting out as he’s suddenly thrown down headfirst. The crowd pulls away and Inlan stumbles towards him, dress torn and bloodied. She grabs his arm, urges him back towards the village. A row of spears ushers them away and Inlan writhes as Will pulls her out into the desert. She begs him to stop, begs him to turn back, but the desert wind wraps around him like a warm blanket, smothering the violent chanting more and more with every step he takes away from the village. He turns to comfort her - she’s not there; she’s stopped just behind him, staring back towards the village where a bright light is emanating from the top of the pyramid. The surrounding sky goes dark. Thunder rolls across the desert and distant mountains, carrying a voice within the echo, deep and distorted. Inlan prays desperately. The ground shakes and the sand begins to flow like disturbed water, summoning waves that rush deliberately, knee-height at first, then waist, then chest. Will fights to keep Inlan’s head afloat, as something approaches beneath the surface, wrapping around them with increasing speed, before rising above the waves and spinning rapidly like the edge of a vortex. Then a hiss like lightning. Sand slithers over sand, swoops up menacingly, towers over Will and Inlan intently, showering them with sand. Pulsating, shredding and reforming continuously - it’s eyes are dead canyons, it’s forked-tongue a valley, it’s mouth an abyss.

As the storm subsides and the desert goes silent and empty once more, a father weeps in the sand for his daughter, while upon the highest stair of the pyramid, a dark-robed figure smiles knowingly, and strokes the snake carved into the head of his staff.



I recently graduated with a degree in English lit and therefore spent a hell of lot of time studying the classics. I gained a particular appreciation for modernists like Joyce and Mansfield and the key rule of modernism which was always ‘show don’t tell’. I love ambiguous storytelling, I love storytelling that evolves from the ground up, where information is revealed gradually and naturally through language and interactions between characters, and I prefer authors that respect the ability of their reader to respond to such subtlety. I also like fantasy, obviously.



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