Dark Fantasy Story
Nine Rings Of Silver And One Of Bronze
The sky flared in hues of magenta and purple, and behind the tethered camels, the mountains seemed to grow darker and taller. On those slopes waited Mourad's redemption - or his death.
Tonight, he must visit the accursed ruin town.
Despite the lingering afternoon heat, his fingers stiffened with cold. He could still walk away from the danger, keep his attention on the living people of the caravan, and leave the past buried on those slopes.
He splintered a juniper branch across his thigh and fed it to the red blush of the flames. The wood snapped and popped. As if on cue, the two dozen travellers shifted closer to the crackling fire, hands clutching earthenware mugs, woollen shawls pulled around heads.
“Ghul don't prey on travellers in groups.” One of the matrons waved her arm authoritatively, clanking bronze bangles. “Not normally, anyway.”
Others contributed ghul lore, tragedies which had happened to ancestors, hearsay events and superstitions. Mourad half-listened. He knew about the ghul. They lived mostly in the desert and ruined places. As shapeshifters they took animal form, and even the form of the people they had eaten. The gods marred their form with one imperfection – a missing eye, a hideous ear – to reveal their depravity.
As a caravan master, Mourad encouraged the telling of scary stories around the campfire, because frightened travellers were easier to shepherd. Fear made them docile, and they wouldn't go exploring or wander from the camp in the dark. But tonight Mourad had to confront his own, very real, fear.
“Well, this is the desert,” the matron said with more clinks of her bangle-covered arm. “But there's nothing here besides sand and rocks and mountains. No deserted places, so probably no ghuls.”
Mourad's gaze went to the mountain. Behind that dark outcrop stood the accursed town, crushed in an earthquake many years ago. Dread constricted his throat. He sat, his legs crossed, and fed more wood to the fire.
“You're mistaken, lady,” the spice merchant Adishir said. He was a brooding man whose big turban shadowed his face and dark moustache. “Our caravan master doesn't want to alarm us with this fact - but we are in the centre of a ghul haunt.”
Hands flew to mouths.
“There are old stories about ghul attacks that happened in this stretch of the desert long ago.” Mourad donned his authoritative caravan master voice and balanced his words to keep his flock nervous but not panicking. “We should be reasonably safe here, as long as we take precautions. Don't leave camp, wear your amulets, and keep a sprig of basil on you at all times.”
“Not just stories,” said Adishir, his voice grave. “I lost my bride to the ghul, and it happened not long ago, and not far from here.”
“Our caravan master doesn't want to alarm us with this fact - but we are in the centre of a ghul haunt.”
His listeners shuddered, pressed for details, and leant forward so they wouldn't miss a word.
Mourad's stomach grew heavy with dread. He dug his nails into his palms, hoping that Adishir's story was not about last year's tragedy.
Adishir combed his fingers through his moustache. “It happened a year ago, on this remote route betwen Ain Zigat and Djildit, in the vicinity of these mountains. My bride was travelling across the desert to wed me. Her name was Talitha.”
Like the lash of a whip, the name seared across Mourad's chest. He stared straight ahead into the fire, careful not to betray himself with a movement of his limbs or a flicker on his face.
Adishir pulled the headcloth where it wound around his neck, as if struggling to breathe. “The caravan leader was young, lacking the sense and the experience to fear the ghuls, and neglected the basic precautions – not like our conscientious Master Mourad here.”
Mourad forced a swallow through his tight throat and touched the new beard which gave him a look of maturity. Through the veil of woodsmoke, he darted a glance at Adishir, but the merchant was not looking at him.
Silence hung like a cloud over the group. Travellers fidgeted, unsure if they should express sympathy or if that would be insensitive.
A change of subject revived the talk, but Mourad's mind circled around the memory of a young woman who had wandered off into those mountains alone.
The sun vanished, leaving a red-gashing wound on the horizon. The time had come for Mourad to face his fear and atone for his guilt.
He set a sentry rota, reminded everyone to keep basil in their blankets and wear their amulets so they touched the skin, and urged them to alert one another should the slightest disturbance occur.
“I have already put a ward on this place which will keep ghul and other demons away. For added protection, I will ride sunwise around the camp, draw sigils with my cedar wand and incant the protection rite.”
His charges nodded, clearly impressed with his knowledge and reassured by his responsible attitude.
But he had to desert them for tonight.
After spiralling around the camp for a while, withdrawing further and further from the sight of its fire, he rode to the foot of the mountain.
He hobbled his camel and lit a torch from the embers he had brought. The wisewoman in Ain Zigat had told him there was only one way to rip out the guilt that gnawed at his heart. He must go to where he had failed through cowardice, right into the heart of the place and bury an offering under the light of the gibbous moon: nine rings of silver and one of bronze.
He had planned this caravan trek to lead past this spot at the right time. Now he had to follow his planning with action.
A canyon cut a black slash into the mountain, and from there the overgrown trail threaded its way in zigzags up the slope, between a tangled mass of gnarled junipers, rocks and thorny vines.
A year ago he had seen a young woman labour up this path, hampered by overlong skirts. He had followed her, because as the caravan master he wanted to admonish her for leaving the camp – but also because she was young and pretty, and whatever her reason for climbing the mountain alone, she might wish for company during the night. The thought of a dalliance on the slopes had stirred his lusts.
With every step, the weight of his guilt and the dread of what would come pressed heavier on him, but he forced himself onward.
The broken town lay on the mountain outcrop and clung to its downward slopes, tier after tier of walled enclosures with jagged edges. Vines clustered in the walls' creases, skeleton-white in the moonlight.
The gatehouse had crumbled, only its arch still stood like a sentinel of death.
Last year he had paused here, listening to the whispers and cackles of the wind, and peeked through the entrance at the bodies which lay crushed beneath the weight of falling rocks, their bones gnawed bare by scavengers, their skulls grinning their challenge up at him. In this creepy place, he was suddenly less certain of his disbelief in demons, and the prospect of a brief dalliance no longer seemed worth the risk.
Eventually, his responsibility as caravan master had asserted itself, and he took a few trembling steps into the ruins to call Talitha back to the camp. Then she had screamed. Her echoing scream was answered by what could only be demonic laughter.
Mourad had fled while the ghuls feasted on their victim.
Tonight, he needed to be braver, and atone for his cowardice.
He carried every possible shield – twigs of basil, amulets of obsidian and black hematite, known to deter demons – although nothing could entirely safeguard a human against a determined ghul's attack.
With his feet planted wide and one fist clutched around his torch, the other around the rings, he encouraged himself to step into the accursed town. He had to reach its centre not looking right or left, not dithering anywhere, not let anything deflect his purpose. The faster he accomplished his quest, the sooner he could leave.
He marched into the ruined town. The air grew thicker, colder. The near-blackness of the night lay like a weight on his shoulders. Eerie silence wrapped around him, and his own sandals slapping on the stones sounded like an intrusion. He entered the first of the chambers where he had heard Talitha's scream, and shone his torch on silhouettes and shadows of cracked walls and shattered furniture. Rats scurried from the light, flipping their long tails.
His heartbeat fluttered like a nightbird but he refused to let fear undermine his resolve.
Smells of dust, decay and animal excrement filled the air.
His foot hit an obstacle, he stumbled. The torch slipped from his hand, rolled into a floor crack, went out. Darkness became absolute, and terror squeezed his throat.
Mourad groped his way onwards. His fingers slid along cold stone, crumbling brick, and tangles of thorny weeds.
Some chambers lay submerged in water, the result of underground lakes pocking most mountains in this land.The walls were slimy with algae and stank of mould, rodent droppings and rotten eggs.
At last, he reached what must have been the courtyard of a rich person's home, colonnaded with arches and mosaic floors. Moonlight poured from above, showing fractured statues, silhouetted lemon trees and remnants of a private well. It was good to see light again, however sparse.
This courtyard, Mourad reckoned, was the place where he had to carry out his mission in the centre of the ruined town.
To calm his thudding heart, he breathed deeply of the cool night air.
He knelt, ripped a tuft of grass from the ground, and dug his fingers into the soil where the roots had been. Scraping with his nails, he created a small hollow for his offering. One by one he placed the rings, the way the wisewoman had instructed, first the nine silver, than the bronze.
“Forgive me, Talitha,” he murmured. “Forgive my cowardice.”
The pale moon crept behind scattered clouds, robbing the place of all but a shred of light.
Behind his back, something rustled. Something moaned. The sound came from the colonnade. An animal? A predator?
Then “Help! Help!” A weak voice, more a whisper than a shout – a woman's.
He leaped up. Fighting his urge to bolt, he clutched the hematite amulet on his chest and advanced towards the source of the sound.
Aided by a sliver of moonlight, he found a person cowering in an alcove. He bent over the body.
“Mourad,” she croaked.
His knees buckled, and he stumbled back a step and sagged against the wall.
“Talitha!” he gasped. “Talitha, is that you?”
He fell on his knees by her side and shifted to allow the moonlight to fall on her features. It was the face that had haunted his conscience for so long.
She had wrapped herself in a tattered blanket, and stank of sickness and filth. Her hair was a tangled mess of plaits, her once-pretty face thin, her eyes dulled from hunger, but she clasped his hand.
“You've come back!” she said. Her voice was weak and raw. “You've come at last, you've come!”
“Yes,” he managed, groping for reason.
He felt her cold bony wrist and found a pulse.
“You're alive!” he said. “You really are alive.”
The gods must have seen his remorse and rewarded his courage. Tears welled up behind his eyelids.
“When I heard you scream that day, I thought the ghul had got you. But you're alive!”
“Slipped,” she croaked. “Sprained ankle. So much pain.”
“Talitha, I didn't know. I'm so sorry!”
“Thank you, thank you. You've come,” she repeated.
“I have a camel waiting below, and a caravan is on the plain. You're safe now. But tell me, how did you survive?”
She turned her face towards the courtyard. “Pomegranates. Lemons. Pickled olives in the cellars – but none left, now.”
"The gods must have seen his remorse and rewarded his courage"
“You shall have food,” he promised. “And good care.” Warmth spread throughout his body, and his heartbeat raced. He tried to order his scattered thoughts. “I'll take you to the caravan, and then a healer. Can you walk?”
“Thank you.” She struggled to rise.
He lifted her into his arms. Emaciated, she weighed less than a child.
He carried her into the courtyard. In the light of the moon, her eyes looked feverish, and her skin had an unhealthy glow.
He wrapped his arms tightly around her, lifted her higher – and saw her bare feet.
One foot twisted inwards, with toes like bulbs.
Coldness slammed his core. Ghuls disguised as the people they had killed – with one deformity.
Was this Talitha – or was it a ghul? What if the demons had killed her, and assumed her form? Had demons devoured her? Thoughts churned, and hot sweat drenched his chest.
Her face – the eyes protruded, glazed with silver. The lips pulled back, bared teeth.
With all his might, he pushed the ghul from him.
But the monster held him in his demonic grip It clung and clawed, hissed and screeched. Sharp nails raked his flesh.
With the writhing burden, Mourad staggered towards the well. While the ghul's howls echoed through the ruins, he managed to prie a bony finger off his elbow, then the whole hand. He bent and shoved the flailing form towards the dark hole.
But the ghul still clung to the well head, it's demonic eyes glaring up at Mourad. He stomped hard on the head, heard the skull crack, and at last forced the monster down the shaft.
With a sharp cry, the ghul fell. The body landed with a faraway thudding splash.
Mourad recoiled, heaved, rubbed his hands down his tunic.
An unearthly scream tore from the depth. The demon was not dead!
Mourad could not recall if ghuls could be killed. But they could be trapped, and of that he would make sure. He grabbed rocks, bricks, whole sections of broken wall and slammed them down the well, not resting until the shaft was filled to the brim.
At last, the screams stopped.
The only sound was the thud of his own heart, racing from effort and fear.
Then he ran, through the echoing chambers which now seemed to compress to crush him between their walls, through the gatehouse arch, to the safety of the moon-lit slope. The mocking laughter of a thousand ghuls seemed to follow him down the rock-strewn path.
His heart thudded in his ears as he slithered down the slope, releasing stones, stumbling, falling, scrambling back up, finally reaching his camel.
What a fool he had been! How nearly had he fallen for the ghul's ruse! How narrowly he had escaped!
By the time he neared the familiar yellow glow of the campfire, his heartbeat had slowed to normal. He had fought a ghul – and won!
He met Adishir riding a camel towards him.
“I've been looking for you,” the merchant said gravely, one hand on the saddle pommel, the other holding the camel's reins. “Don't worry – all is well in the camp. But I have to leave on a quest tonight. I must ride to that mountain yonder.”
“Don't!” Mourad croaked. “There's an abandoned town, and it's infested with ghul.”
“I know, my friend, I know. That's why I must go there. ”
“The ghuls – they're shapeshifters! They appear as someone you think you know, and devour your living flesh.”
“I know, my friend, and I must take this risk to atone for what I have done. Earlier, I told how my bride had travelled to wed me, and on the way had been stolen by ghuls. This was not so.”
He rubbed a hand across his eyes. “Talitha was the daughter of a trading partner in Ain Zigat, who was promised to me with a dowry I coveted – warehouses in a prime location in Djildit. He sent her with a caravan, as I said – but she arrived. On disrobing in the bridal chamber, I discovered that her father had foisted off a deformed person on me.”
Mourad's throat tightened. He stared at Adishir's hands clutching the camel reigns.
“Outraged, I did not consummate the marriage, but repudiated her on her wedding night. I sent her back to her father with the first available caravan, and in my anger, did not see to her safety or arrange a proper escort. Later I heard that in her despair she had walked into those ruins infested by flesh-eating ghuls.
“So you see, it was all my fault. The guilt has gnawed at my soul ever since. I asked a wisewoman's advice. She said I must go to the place where Talitha died, as close as I ascertain it, and place an offering in her memory.”
Adishir's lips curved in a sad smile, and his eyes remained dark. “I may not come back alive, and my body may be fodder for the ghuls. If that is so, it is just punishment for the heartless way I treated a woman in my care. The poor girl: detested from childhood, traded by her father, rejected by her husband, eaten by ghuls... all because she had a club foot.”
He clasped Mourad's forearm. “Farewell, my friend. Don't look so horrified. Should I not return, I have made arrangements that you will be held free from all blame.”
This story is part of the anthology Fiends: Ten Tales of Demons, with ten stories by ten authors.
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