Blood of the Black Sands

Chapter One

"Saitika," grumbled the old woman as she worked the small loom that sat in front of her. "There comes a time that you must stop your childishness. A time when you must take on the responsibility given to you." She sighed as she turned her near blind eyes towards the younger woman kneeling across from her with her head bowed low over a strip of leather she was working.

"I know, Oba. You've told me this already," she muttered back automatically. She didn't bother to look up as she finally finished the last outline of a rose on the end of the leather band and reached out to switch tools. "I have thought about the responsibility and what I will have to do and I have accepted it. Don't worry about it."

Oba cackled softly as she went back to weaving the cloth, the clatter of the loom and shuttle creating a nice, domestic background to their conversation. "'Don't worry about it'. That makes me worry all the more when coming from you, granddaughter."

As she shook her head she chuckled, which was a rare glimpse of good humor for the old woman. "All I am saying, Saitika is that you and Rathe will have to be careful in what you do. You both are young, you both are strong, and you both are arrogant. Do not become careless."

Saitika glanced up at her, shifting so she sat more comfortably before turning back to her job, muttering a "Yes, Oba" before falling silent as her grandmother went into her daily chant of what a proper clan leader would do it certain situations. Saitika narrowed her green and gold flecked eyes as she picked up a small v-shaped silver tool and carefully pressed it into the top layer of the leather, letting her mind wander as Oba rattled on.

The old woman's husky voice was comforting and helped create a peaceful atmosphere with the rattle of the loom. Sai bent closer to her work, her short chopped black hair falling forward into her eyes as she pressed the blade of the tool along the first of the cut marks to start carving the design into the leather. She fell into a sort of trance as she scrapped the top layer of leather away, listening to the noises around her. Peacefully oblivious to everything around her except for her work in front of her. And then, sudden pain on her left shoulder, followed by a sharp voice.

"Saitika are you listening to me?" snapped Oba as she laid her gnarled cane back beside her.

"Of course," she muttered as she rubbed her shoulder, trying to keep from snapping back at the elder, "every word!"

Oba snorted, obviously doubting that she had been listening but seemed satisfied as she went back into her speech. Starting with, "You should listen to me, girl. I will be too far away to get you out of trouble."

Sai, again, let her attention be consumed by her work as Oba fell onto the subject of marriage and children. She knew this speech by heart already. She knew she was likely never to marry. Who would want a woman such as she? She was handsome, not beautiful. Her hair was chopped short due to an unfortunate accident with a cook fire, so her skill in cooking had been labeled dangerous by the clan, and her mixed blood only helped secure the fact that she was all but ineligible for marriage to any of the men in this puritan clan.

She had the long limbs of the desert people of the clan, but had the sturdy build and round face of the Mainland people. This added to the fact that she was a difficult young lady to be around sometimes assured that her pick of husbands would be limited greatly. This was not to say that she didn't hope that she would find a man to her liking. The fact was she already had found a suitable man, but their duties restricted any chance that they could make something more of their friendship. Sai had already accepted the fact that anything with Rathe would be almost impossible as long as they remained with the Black Sands Clan.

A sudden pang of longing and sadness caused her to close her eyes and make a slightly deeper cut into the leather than she had intended. She cursed and looked up, shaking the hair out of her face, which sent the silver hoops that pierced her ears to chiming softly. Oba hadn't noticed, of course. She just kept rattling on accepting Sai's nods and muttered responses.

With a long, deep breath, Saitika turned back to her work, allowing her vision to narrow again to the length of leather before her. She automatically switched to a finer tool as she worked on some of the intricate details of her design. The old woman's voice became fainter and fainter along with the sounds of the camp around her. She was creating. She was forming something to her idea of perfection, slowly scraping away what she saw as imperfections, and making needed improvements to the overall appearance.

She would do the same thing to her clan. She would mold it; change it into something better than before. She would make this clan hers and would be sure to get rid of the imperfection in the people who the last leader had not been strong enough to get rid of. There would be no tolerance for failures or people who would put the clan into danger because of their foolishness.

Saitika gave a self satisfied smile as she shifted the strip of leather in her grip so she could hold it tighter until a sharp pain across her shoulders and then in the palm of her hand slammed her out of her reprieve.

"Oba! Stop hitting me!" she shouted as she dropped her leather and the tool and looked up at the old woman who was now standing, and for the first time in years, towered over her granddaughter.

Oba grabbed Sai's ear, not caring as she caught a gnarled finger in one of the silver hoops and almost jerked it out of the woman's ear. "Listen to your better sense, Saitika. I know you're ambitious and I know you are eager to show your worth to these old nomads, but do not do something foolish." She released Sai's ear and gently placed her hand on top of her head in a sort of blessing. "You and Rathe will do well. Take care."

With that she shuffled towards the flap over the tent, leaving Saitika to sit there stunned for a moment as she attempted to sort out what had just happened. Her shoulders, neck, hand, and ear hurt, the old woman had first rebuked her and then praised her. And now she was sitting alone in her tent watching the blood from her hand stain the leather strip and the mat she sat on. Just like that, she was in charge of the lives of twenty other men and women.

Below her, the blood was slowly turning the golden color of the leather into a darker shade as it permeated the unprotected area beneath the top layer of fibers. An imperfection. She frowned quietly as she picked up the piece of leather and absently ran her thumb over the rose pattern that was now stained dark.

Will they become what I want them to be? Will they become a blood stain on the sands because of me? she thought solemnly as she laid the leather back down and stood, balling up the end of her long skirt against the puncture mark in her hand.

The answer was simple. Even if she failed as a leader, the people would never allow themselves to be defeated. They would always persevere as they had for ages. With or without the help of the gods that the elders harped about.

Slowly she made her way over to the opening of the tent and pushed the flap of the tent out of her way as she watched Oba shuffle slowly to the waiting wagon along with some of the older men and woman who did not think they could make the travel across the Altherian Desert. They would return south to the area surrounding Trandil, their last home. Hopefully they could find safe haven in some of the smaller cities there. The guards that were traveling with the caravans helped finish the preparations to leave, helping the elderly into the wagons, making sure the beasts were secured, and ensuring that the ones leaving had the proper provisions. From somewhere up the line of wagons a man could be heard calling orders to the wagon drivers. They were ready to depart, and Oba had left without giving Sai a chance to say a proper farewell.

She didn't even seem to notice as a tall, broad shouldered figure stepped up beside her, and jumped slightly when he laid his heavy hand on her shoulder.

"We will meet them again at some point in time," he said softly, his deep voice cool and tinged with a demand for respect. "The journey is relatively short so they will make it fine."

"Of course they will. They're stubborn enough to," she muttered back as she moved back inside, allowing him to follow if he wished. "I just hope that we haven't made a mistake letting them go back south instead of heading towards the mountains. So, Rathe, did you come here to comfort me or do you want something?"

The man smirked, his black eyes glittering good naturedly as he moved to sit on the cushion that Oba had vacated earlier, pushing aside her loom and the cloth she had left behind on it. "Can't it be both?"

"No."

Rathe rolled his eyes and ran a hand over his head, smoothing the thick black hair away from his face, "You're too harsh. I did come to see if you were alright, and I did come to speak to you about something."

Sai offered him a clay mug filled to the brim with the strong smelling tea that she constantly drank before moving to sit back down, looking at the palm of her hand to see what damage had been done, "And that would be?" She took a long drink as she looked up at him, searching his face for a hint of what he wanted. Somehow, she figured it would be bad news.

He was silent as he took a long drink, allowing the liquid to cool his mouth before swallowing it and spoke, "Scouts have seen bandits moving in the west. If they cut us off it could be serious. We've already had trouble with that gang of them in Trandil so if we're caught by them again it'll be a problem because we'll run the risk of them finding out who it was that turned in their 'leader' to the Emperor. I wouldn't have guessed that they would be coming back through the desert to get back to their base camp."

'Could be serious'. Sai scoffed. There was no could be in this situation, it was a distinct probability. She took another long drink from her mug as she moved quietly to where her black ash spear, topped with curved silver steel blade leaned next to her packs. She reached out to trail her finger over the etched design on the edge of the blade.

"That is defiantly something I didn't want to hear. They'll definitely out number us, and most of the people traveling are non-combatants. We have some of the old warriors, but most of the younger ones are going with the rest of the clan back to the main lands."

The tent was silent as Rathe simply nodded his head and continued to drink. After a few moments he stood and moved to stand behind her, watching her eyes in the reflection of the blade. With only a moment of hesitation he wrapped his arm around her waist and pulled her back against his chest in a gentle hug.

"Don't worry about it, Saitika. We will be prepared if they attack. Most likely they will be waiting for us to come closer to the mountains. If we stay away from there, we should be alright," he tightened his arm around her for a moment longer before pulling away. "We can do this."

Sai nodded slightly as she ran a hand over her face and turned back to face him, "Can we be at the Dead River by sun up tomorrow?"

"I don't see why not," he said with a shrug.

She nodded and ran a hand over her face one last time before moving to clean up her knifes and tools from where she had been working, wrapping the ruined leather around the delicate tools to protect them before putting them back into her pack. "Good, then have everyone ready to move out. Make sure they all have filled their canteens and water kegs. I don't want to take any chances."

Rathe nodded silently as he threw the dregs of his tea outside of the tent. He tossed the cup back to Sai, who narrowly missed catching it, and moved out without another word to her. However, once outside his voice rang out, shouting the orders for the camp to get ready to move.

Alone again in her tent, Sai stopped packing as she closed her eyes and lifted her face to the sky outside of the tent in a silent prayer to whatever gods might be listening, if they listened at all. A month to the Meanderings, the midway point of the desert, then another two months to the foothills of the Amon Mountains. Gods I hope we make it without running into those thieves.

She gave herself a good shake before moving to roll up the mats that created the floor of her tent. It would be a long journey, it would be a difficult journey, and hopefully it would be a journey to change their lives for the better. And hopefully they could find a place to call home.

A FULL MONTH of traveling brought the weary and beaten clan to the Meanderings, a patch of dried river beds that acted as a half way point in their journey. The deep scars from the mighty river that had carved the deep crevices in the rock of the desert generations ago provided some shelter from the blistering sun and harsh wind that had tormented the clan. The wagons seemed to pick up speed as their drivers saw the landmark and knew that some sort of rest would greet them once they had made it down the steep embankment and into the relatively flat bed of the dead river.

Roan stood on the top of the bank where his gear was set and shaded his eyes against the sun as he watched the horizon. It had been too quiet along the normally somewhat busy trail that cut across the desert. There had been fewer and fewer merchants tempting fate by crossing in known bandit territory, which hadn't boded well for his group.

Movement caught his eye. Just over the rise of one of the dunes a small wagon pulled by two of the long legged, desert beasts slowed to make the decent towards the safety of the shadows. He laughed as he watched two more wagons move over the dune only to disappear behind another, and by the sound of the shouts and calls up and down the line of shadows, he hadn't been the only one to see the caravan. He moved hastily to wrap the cowl back around his neck to protect the exposed skin of the back of his neck and his shaved head from the still blistering sun and unwrapped the two blades from the blanket they'd been protected by and move quickly to shout orders. He pulled the dark cowl that was around his neck back over his mouth as he turned to slide down the small hill. Perhaps this would be a good haul and would quell the mutinous feelings of his men.

As the wagons traveled down the dune, the sturdy creatures digging their feet into the sand to keep the wagons from pushing them down the hill faster than they wanted to go Rathe stuck his head out to look around, blinking quickly in the suddenly bright sun. Up and down the line he could see other people looking out of their wagons, where they had gone to take shelter from the sun, as they sensed the line slowing. He ran a hand over his face lazily as he moved to jump down, trusting his beast to continue following the wagon in front of him as he moved up the line of wagons. He could see that Saitika had already climbed up on top of her wagon's roof.

He knocked on the side of the rough wooden structure and sighed, "Anything interesting?"

"Sand, dunes, more sand. Interesting enough?" she looked down at him before moving to sit, swinging her legs over the side to allow her heels to beat against the side.

Rathe smirked and shook his head, "Not particularly, but I'd rather that be the most interesting thing." He shrugged as he grabbed her ankle to stop her from kicking the wall, though his frown deepened as he released her ankle and continued towards the front of the line. Something's there.

He had only a moment to think before there was a shout, and then the flash of steel as a spear head, attached to a long, rusted chain whipped in front of him, sinking deep into the flesh of the beast ahead of him. Predictably, the animal shied, crying out as it reared, and toppled sideways carrying the wagon with it as it rolled down the rest of the dune. The beast's distress call spooked the rest of the animals and they stopped, rearing and causing the drivers to jump down and try and stop them and the families to abandon the boxes just in case they rolled as well. Rathe bent to try and help pull the family trapped inside out through the window but instead drew his long, curved sword to block another attack by the makeshift blade and chain.

The attacker smirked as his blade wrapped around Rathe's sword. He jerked, attempting to pull the blade from the larger man's hands but did not take into account that Rathe was prepared for that and instead jerked the man in his direction so that his fist connected with the man's nose. Before he could free his blade from the chain however, he turned in time to see a man, his face covered by a black cowl raise his sword to smash the pommel into Rathe's temple, sending the fighter into the cool darkness of oblivion.

Saitika had jumped from her perch as her own wagon toppled over, grabbing her spear from the rubble of the wagon and moved, quickly, to join the fray as the few men with weapons from her clan tried to defend the wagons and noncombatants. Her eyes were dark with anger and she lashed out at the attackers without putting much thought into her moves. She aimed to kill, her blade soon glistening with blood which made the shaft of the spear slick. All around her she heard women shouting, the few children crying as they were jerked out of the wagons, not by their fathers and the men that they knew, but by the bandits.

She watched in a red haze as her friends and brothers fell around her and for each that fell she made sure she injured one of the others. That was until she saw that she was the only one fighting. The Falcons had gone around from behind, had double the men, and had already rounded up the women and children, as well as the wounded. Saitika faltered for a moment before she found herself thrown to the ground, her arms bound behind her back and her spear pulled from her hand as someone slammed her face down into the sand before pulling her head up by her hair. When she could open her eyes, her gaze was met by two dull blue eyes as Roan knelt in front of her and chuckled.

"At least you tried, eh?" he stood, and watched as his men gathered up their wounded, leaving the dead for the scavengers, and continued to round up the Black Sands Clan members. He shook his head. "But apparently you didn't try enough. Stupid to think you could just move across without trouble." He smirked as she was pulled to her feet, struggling to free her arms from the two men who held her. She kept her head bowed to try and ignore his greedy and calculating gaze. Saitika winced and muttered a curse when she heard the jackals cackling over the supplies and few valuable items they found in the wagons. Roan shot a hand out to pull her face up so he could watch her eyes.

"I know you don't want to see the rest of your clan killed and left to be a meal or two for scavengers, so why don't you come with me, girl, and we'll come to some kind of agreement that will benefit both our clans?"


Author's Note: This is the third revision of the first chapter of my story. A lot of major changes happened to this chapter from the very first revision and I'm very happy with it. I hope you enjoy it as well. All comments are welcome, but please be constructive!