Jakira sat in the black desert and willed the Sand Scuttler to her. She was running out of time. Her first blood was upon her and when it ran dry, the master would have his way.
Tonight was the last time Big Bulai would allow her out and soon Jakira would be required to warm beds for Master Rasheed, his sons, his male relatives and friends. And then to pleasure Big Bulai. The thought repulsed her, so she quietened her mind and willed it to her.
She knew the creature existed. It had to…
Three scorch seasons earlier.
The tinkling charms and God-blessed bells sewn around the flap of their ragged tent awoke Jakira with a sudden violent rattle. It was the dead of night, and all in this part of the Parchad slum were quiet, sleeping. The noisy ones, like her father, were off in another part of the city. The pleasure part. Only the women, children and poorest men remained.
Her mother screamed as the flap flew back, and she sat up on the floor, clutching Jakira to her. Two men entered and Jakira’s brothers started up, baffled that they were being robbed for the little they had, but then came the voice of their father.
He stepped into the tent with a candle and slurred at the boys, “Get out the way.”
To his wife, he commanded, “You belong to them now.”
And to the two men he mumbled, “Debt paid.”
The debt collectors grabbed for her mother, who continued to scream until a hard slap from the larger of the two silenced her.
“Take the girl too, I don’t want another mouth to feed without the wife. I’ll keep my sons, they bring in money. The brat can be advance payment on another debt.”
The large man laughed, picked up Jakira and bundled her under his arm. She kicked and thumped but that only made him laugh more.
Outside the tent, their neighbours stayed firmly out of sight. They had heard everything, of course. The tents were packed so close that Jakira could hear their old neighbour sigh in his sleep and, if she reached out a hand, could feel his bony back through the cloth.
Her mother took one last look at their home, the small scrap of sand that was four paces wide and five paces long. The cloth draped over the stick frame that she had so lovingly stitched back together and patched up. The home she had kept clean and tidy and orderly, as much as possible with four children and a husband in such a confined space.
She had been proud of it, they lived in the slums but inside the crater wall, a step up from those in the slums outside. Her husband and three sons worked at the glass factory and, with her careful management of their pay, the family always had water to drink and food on most days. But father always wanted to gamble, drink and smoke poppy. At that moment, he stumbled out of the tent and her mother spat at him.
He lunged for her. “Why you…” He didn’t get far as the smaller of the two debt collectors pushed him and he fell on his rump, pulling their tent down on top of him. Her brothers shouted from inside. Jakira knew he’d have no idea how to fix that later without her mother.
“She doesn’t belong to you anymore. She belongs to us,” the smaller man sneered.
He gripped her mother’s arm and marched her away, her mother’s chin held high. The large debt collector dropped Jakira to the ground and followed, dragging her in the dirt. She refused to move her legs, refused to accept this was happening.
“If you don’t start walking, brat, I’ll slit your throat,” he growled.
“Jakira, do as you are told,” her mother soothed. To the debt collectors, she said, “The girl will fetch you a good price, don’t hurt her, don’t mark her. She can cook and clean and knows her numbers and letters. She’s only seen ten scorch seasons but she’s strong and quiet and won’t give you any trouble and although we’re Affarah peasants, she has a naturally small nose – look like mine – and small hump, she’ll be acceptable for the Tamadeen noble clans and maybe even Qacirr holy clans…”
“Knows her letters? You are lying, bitch. She’ll do for a whore house,” said the larger one.
“No, no, I swear it! My father worked for a holy man, counting his money. He taught me and I taught her. Test her!”
“Ha! He doesn’t know his letters,” the smaller one laughed. “We’ll get the slave seller to look her over, he’ll know what she’ll fetch.”
The golden orange sun was coming up as they trudged through parts of the city Jakira had never been before, towards the centre of the crater where the lake was, and the Wakrime royal clan’s palace.
They were on their way to the flesh district. Her mother still insisting their skills meant they were worth more than the whore house and the men listening with amused indifference.
The men wore the traditional Affarah long sleeved, collarless tunics that fell to the knees in a dull grey or sandy colour. Only the rich clans could afford dyed cloth. Slits in the back allowed humps to poke out. Underneath, the men wore the loose-fitting trousers that were cuffed at the ankles. On their heads, sweat stained skullcaps kept off the sun’s rays. The large man had on one dusty slipper, a sign they were of the wealthier class of peasants.
Jakira and her mother wore similar long sleeved, loose tunics, in dull grey, but with no trousers, bare feet and uncovered hair. Cloth was expensive, and slippers even more so.
The slum tents became huts and the huts became villas with gates and guard-slaves, but the streets and alleys were always the same. Dirty, dusty, small and winding. Chaotic and crowded.
Jakira’s old, bony neighbour had told her stories that the crater was formed a very long time ago, by a piece of star falling to the ground and smashing a giant hole in the desert. The natural, circular wall was protection from the severe winds that whipped up dunes and blew apart whole villages outside the crater. There was an abundant water source in the centre of the crater and the star had blasted away layers of sand to uncover good soil, where vegetables and fruit could grow and animals could graze. The Wakrime clan had first found this place and settled here, and that was why they were royal.
Every possible piece of sandy dirt was lived on, the wealthy living near the lake or up the sides of the crater wall, where the stench was more bearable, and the poor lived in slums erected wherever the wealthy rejected. When there was no more space, the slums moved outside the crater wall. Her bony neighbour had told her there was more to the desert nation of Drome than the capital Parchad, but she had never been outside the crater city, and could not imagine it. Most Dromedars, once inside the crater wall, never left, it was a paradise compared to the desert outside.
Screams, sobs and cries grew louder as the large man announced, “We’re here.”
Jakira started to kick and thump again as they passed cages full of people and rows of chained men.
“No,” she wailed and the large debt collector slapped her, but she couldn’t stop.
The smaller one found the hut he was looking for and banged the door. An old man appeared, yawning. A few words, and then money, was exchanged. The old man whistled and two sturdy boys who looked like him, his sons Jakira guessed, appeared.
The debt collectors left laughing and counting their drimars, whilst the slave trader’s sons led Jakira and her mother down a tiny alleyway to a small patch of dirt where a sweaty, soot stained male slave clanged metal on rock.
Her mother’s arms were held down on the rock as wide metal cuffs were fastened around her wrists and a small length of chain was attached to each cuff. She did not struggle. Jakira tried to resist when it came to her turn but the sons held her down and two heavy, blackened cuffs were clinched around her wrists, a chain attached to each.
There was a row of small cages inside the hut, filled with slaves who slept, cried or shouted. Jakira and her mother were pushed into an empty one. Jakira could just about stand, but her mother crouched and sat on the floor. She opened her arms to her child, as wide as she could with the chain. Jakira went to her, ducked under the chain and cuddled into her chest as if they were getting ready for sleep. Jakira fiddled with her cuffs, but they would not budge. Her hands felt heavy and dropped towards the ground.
“We are no longer freepeople, Jakira, my sweet child. Your father… has given us up. Listen to everyone, learn everything and you will find a way out of slavery.” She stroked her daughter’s hair tenderly. Jakira closed her eyes and breathed in her mother’s comforting scent.
She was woken by an angry hand around her arm and she was pulled, wailing, from her mother’s arms, the warm contact between their bodies lessening, until only their fingertips still touched and then… a cold nothing. Her mother sobbed, her face one of utter despair, and she kept repeating, “Listen and learn my love… listen and learn…”
Jakira stood, in her tatty tunic, tears streaming from her eyes, in front of the hut and was inspected by a tall, muscular man with a large, furry hump, shaved head, smashed teeth and huge forearms. Cuffs around his wrists indicated he was a slave, but one with responsibilities. He pinched Jakira’s cheeks, looked at her hump and checked in her mouth. As soon as the man spoke, however, Jakira realised he was a she.
“You say she can cook? And knows her numbers?”
“Yes, Big Bulai, she’s a bargain.”
“You’d better not be lying to me, slimy slave trader.”
“Oh no, you know how much I value the business of the Rasheed family.”
“Seven, I insist. She’s prime flesh.”
The slave trader declared, “Sold!”
The pair went inside the hut whilst a burly male slave, with one eye that only half opened, held onto Jakira’s hair. Jakira knew the Rasheeds. A Tamadeen clan family, known for producing and selling the finest glass in Parchad city, and her father’s employer.
She was delivered, sobbing, into the hands of Big Bulai via the burly Rasheed male slave who yanked her by her hair around a street corner. Big Bulai slapped her hard and put her in a cart next to a boy with wrist cuffs and a chain, a pile of vegetables and two big slabs of meat.
“Be quiet,” the boy murmured. “This is a wealthy Tamadeen family, we are blessed by God.”
“I don’t feel blessed,” Jakira whined. “My mother, I want my mother.”
Big Bulai stepped onto the back of the cart.
“Go,” she growled at the male-slave, who pulled the cart down the narrow streets. People moved out of his way. His half-shut eye and broad shoulders radiated menace. “Stop this snivelling or you’ll both be whipped.”
Jakira continued to sob and the boy slave said, “Shush. Please. You are not the only one to lose your mother today. You will make this worse for us if you don’t be silent. Cry later.”
She glanced up at him and he nodded gently, she quietened. He brought his chained hands up and started to chew on his fingernails.
As they bumped along, Big Bulai surveyed her purchases, running her tongue along her wrecked teeth, and her eyes rested on Jakira. The woman slowly licked her lips.
Want to keep reading?
The Sand Scuttler is out now! Available as ebook from Amazon, Kobo, iBooks, Google Play Books, Barnes & Noble and Smashwords.
Click here for your free ebook of my fantasy novella THE FALL OF VAASAR.
Click here for my Book Review Policy.
Are you on Goodreads? Let's be friends! Find me here.
Subscribe to my email mailing list to be notified about new releases, giveaways, price promotions, free books, free short stories as well as exclusive extra content.