He was glad to reach the small lake, for he was now truly thirsty, and his dry throat burned. A quick skim revealed only shrubs and a few palm trees. His old routine would have led him around the lake, checking for tracks along the shore. But the day’s heat drained him, and his tired limbs begged for a rest. He picked a spot where the ground was soft and under the shadow of a large palm, tied his horse there, and fed him some of the oats. He drank to his fill, refilled his water skins, unstrung his bow, and then lay under the shadow near his horse. He said, “I will rest a while, and then I must search for tracks on the banks of this lake. I haven’t seen any sign of human tracks today, but desert bandits, outlaws, and raiders may have passed here recently.”
It was not the intention of Rumish to fall asleep, but the cool air from the lake under the shadow of that great palm had lured him to comfort and tempted him to close his heavy eyelids for but a moment. When he awoke, it was late dusk, and the day’s last rays sent their dwindling light over the western ridges. He thought; such is old age, sleep creeps up at the most peculiar of moments but is not there when one desires it. How easily a rogue would have slit my throat here.
There was a breeze coming down from the higher ridges. It came whirling and twirling from the mountain outcrops, disturbing the tranquillity of that quiescent oasis. In one of these whirlwinds, he caught the hints of a distant murmur. He skimmed the area from where he leaned on the trunk of the palm, and when he was sure there was no one in sight, he hurriedly strung his bow and readied his khopesh. The blade was old, and he had carried it since his younger days, but it was castle-forged steel, and the blade kept its edge. He had never been the best of swordsmen, and in his old age, he knew better than to get into sword fights, especially with those who still had the forte of youth. So he always relied on his bow, and although the desert sun had taken its toll on his eyes, he still fancied his chances in a fight.
Rumish followed the direction of the murmurs —tracking them to his north and east— and found himself on the path he had used to climb up the mountain. The rugged mountain had few traversable places, and the path he had used was the safest he had found when he discovered the lake. I must find another way down, just in case. He had barely completed the thought when the sound of an arrow wheezed past his face, struck a rock to his right, and shattered with a crack. He dove under cover of an outcrop as a second arrow planted itself on the ground where he had been standing.
His foes had the higher the ground, and beyond his cover was open terrain. Rumish realized his only advantage was the lingering light as dusk turned to evening and darkness descended. But even as the thought passed his mind, whistles and murmurs echoed around him. A quick peek revealed shadows stealthily approaching, using the cover of rock, gradually encircling his position. Their robes fluttered in the wind, their veiled faces darkened and a terror to behold, and their scimitars menacingly glinting in the semi-dark of dusk.
May the sands of fate favour me; he thought as he darted out of cover and beat a hasty retreat. He took three steps, and an arrow wheezed past his ear. Behind him echoed the hurried footsteps of pursuers. Something hit his shoulder and staggered him as a dull pain spread on his back and numbness spread on his left arm. His bow slipped from his numb fingers and was lost between mountain rocks.
Rumish staggered under the shadow of an outcrop, turned around, and drew his sword. The first pursuer ran after him too fast, and the panic showed in his eyes as Rumish plunged his khopesh elbow-deep into the man’s gut. The second heard the scream from his fallen companion as he rushed into the shadow, but he spotted Rumish a tad too late. A wild and desperate slash with his scimitar deflected off a parry, and Rumish slashed the side of his neck, spraying vermilion on dry mountain rock and sand.
Rumish did not wait for the third. That should slow the rest of them down. They will not be so eager to follow behind me. A sharp pain replaced the numbness in his arm, and the arrow planted on the back of his shoulder throbbed with every step. Behind him, he still heard the murmurs of his pursuers, but they advanced at a slow pace. He thought; I can go for my horse, but it is dark now, and the perilous rocks and rabble on this mountain might trip him, and he will throw me, and I might break my neck. It is better to hide and pray that my foes do not find me.
Rumish trudged further up the mountain towards the moonless, starry night sky. The voices and sounds of his hunters were a constant rumble and clatter behind him, and he knew they were gaining ground on him. He came upon a narrow pass hidden behind piled up strewn rocks. As he attempted to climb over the rocks, there was a frantic noise behind him as a whistle blasted through the night. They spotted me.
He attempted a dash as he came over the rocks but landed on his belly. A shadow appeared over the rocks, and Rumish found himself crawling for the darkest shadow. He found a low-lying split that opened to a crevice wide enough for him, and he crept in, going in as deep as he could. He could hear the voices of his pursuers at his heels. His exhaustion mingled with pain; from it descended darkness within the darkness that enveloped him, and he lost consciousness.
The echo of a cackle woke Rumish. “Who is there?” he asked in a hushed whisper. Perhaps I am delusional. The heat and my injuries must be getting the better of me. “Delusional?” A chuckle echoed all around him, “You crawled into my lair, old man.”
All else stood still and silent in the night. Rumish found that his left side lay numb when he did not move, but a sharp pain shot from his shoulder and arm and down his back when he tried to move his left side. He shifted his weight onto his right side and pushed himself to a sitting position. Complete darkness surrounded him, and he could barely see his form as he sat on the ground. “Is someone there? Show yourself!” he spoke in a low voice. Only the echo of his command returned to him. He reached under his leather armour and felt where the arrow had pierced him. Not much blood was lost. It must have been a bodkin arrow to make such a clean, deep cut. He found that the head of the arrow had gone deep enough to feel it under his front shoulder and above his left armpit. He thought I will not know the damage caused until I get it out.
A chuckle interrupted his thought, “Are you not overlooking something, old man?” It came from his left, just outside his periphery. He jerked in the direction, trying to glance at who spoke, but only agitated his wound, and blinding pain filled him. But he could not ignore the implication; those were raiders from the south, known for poisoning their weapons. “You will be dead by morning, old man.” Again, the voice came from outside his periphery. Slowly Rumish turned his head to where the voice had come from, but only darkness stood there.
“I could help you, old man.”
“I would not trust one who hides in shadows.” Rumish snapped.
“Only fools wish to see my kind.”
Rumish attempted to get a hold of the arrow shaft and found that he could barely reach and wrap his fingers around it. The arrow had entered his shoulder, angled downward and from his right. He paused, letting the pain from his movements subside.
“If only your wife were alive, she would notice your failed return. Perhaps she would appeal to your king to send a search party. But you were not there when she fell ill, and she died alone with only your son by her side.”
“My wife knew of my duties and the dangers that lie waiting among the dunes, even when I married her,” Rumish said, “she would not begrudge me, for I was ambushed, and my delay was unforeseen.”
“What lies you tell yourself. But perhaps if you die here —lost to the dunes in noble duty— your son might write a song about you”, the voice lilted with sarcasm. “You all but abandoned the boy after your wife’s death.”
“The boy has a great build, and I paid the best man-at-arms for his training,” Rumish said, “the king would have taken him to service. Instead, he picked lute and flute and wonders around the kingdom, looking like a fop and entertaining drunks and wenches.”
“Now, now, don’t be too testy. Isn’t he just like his father, who cannot stand being tied down to the city and wonders around the desert days on end, in noble duty?”
Rumish began to search around as he crawled through the darkness. He heavily favoured his left arm and shoulder and relied on his right arm to get familiar with his surroundings. It is a cave, he realised. When he reached a wall, he sat down and sat the nock of the arrow on the rocky wall. He swallowed hard, took a deep breath, and pushed against the wall. He felt the arrow head come through his front as pain shot from his breast through his body, and he collapsed, gasping.
“I’ll admit the boy has talent with his instruments. I have done my best for him, and I see now that he will find his path”, Rumish said between gasps.
“But what of your brother’s widow? You never once visited her and her child. Your own brother’s child.”
Rumish withdrew his dagger and began sawing the arrow shaft. The arrow swayed with the action of the dagger, and it took all his strength to bear the task. When he had cut deep enough, he reached back and snapped the shaft, and then he pulled the head of the arrow from his front. There was little blood loss, but pain paralysed him, and for the first time, he felt the frailty of his age.
“I did my best for them,” Rumish said as he lay motionless. “I appealed to the king and secured a sinecure for her. She is still young and might still find another to marry her. It would not be proper to impose the memory of my brother upon her.”
When he finally opened his eyes, he could see the light of dawn begin to break the louring darkness through the crack he had crawled. His lips felt dry, and for the first time, he felt hunger. I do not think the arrow had poison; after all, he thought. He dragged himself towards the opening and lay there listening for his pursuers. Only the sound of an occasional gust whistled outside. He crawled out, and cool morning air greeted him. Numerous stars still glowed in the dark sky to the west, and to the east, the first rays beamed their light. He lumbered and stumbled down towards the lake, his sword at the ready. Rumish found his horse nonchalantly chomping at the foliage and still tied to the palm. No one was in sight, so he hurriedly mounted his horse and took off toward the city. His wound still hurt, but he knew his only hope lay across the dunes and in the city. As his horse broke into a gallop, he thought; let those raiders chase shadows up there. May the djinns that live up there haunt and hunt them.