Remember my desert-themed prompt contest from last October? This image was one of the prompts I used. Well, it inspired me too! So here is my interpretation of the prompt. I didn’t limit myself to 100 words, though, because I’m allowed to break my own rules. 😉
Bones clattered in Rasul’s sack with each movement his camel took. He gripped the reins more tightly, swaying with the steps of his mount. Though his keffiyeh shielded him from the sun’s rays, sweat dripped from his skin.
“Look ahead!” Baqir pointed with a sun-darkened hand. Not ten camel-lengths in front of them, the tip of a thick white bone gleamed in the harsh sunlight. The rest disappeared into the sand.
“Oh!” Almas peered around Baqir’s broad back. “A new skeleton? Where do you think it came from? Is it a mirage?”
“It seems real.” Rasul let a smile curl his lips. There would be coin in their coffers soon enough. “The wind must have stirred the dunes to reveal this one. Fate smiles upon us today.”
They were lucky that they hadn’t accidentally trod on a skeleton. That could seriously wound a camel depending on if the creature slipped or even impaled itself on the protruding bones. Fortunately, that sort of unfortunate mishap had only happened twice in Rasul’s time of gathering.
Almas bounced, and the camel shifted uneasily at its passenger’s behavior.
Baqir jerked the reins, and the camel settled down. “Watch it, boy,” the stocky man snapped.
“Sorry!” Almas stilled only momentarily before resuming his bouncing. Baqir let out a low growl.
Rasul ignored his companions and gazed at the bone. It was a good find indeed. There had been a time when this area of the desert was rife with tanim skeletons. Everywhere one looked, bones would protrude from the sand, great ribcages and powerful limbs, even thin wing-bones. It was a mass tanim grave, left over from some great battle before Rasul’s time.
But now, moons after Rasul and Baqir had started gathering the bones, the skeletons had become more and more rare. Unfortunately, the demand for bones had not lessened; in fact, it grew greater and greater as their fame grew. For who could resist talismans of luck and protection?
They reached the bone, and Rasul dismounted from his camel. Baqir and Almas soon joined him. The bone only reached Rasul’s waist, but once they uncovered the whole ribcage, it would soar far over Rasul’s head.
“How big do you think it was?” Almas asked in a whisper, as if he, too, had bought into the legends––that the grave was a sacred space haunted with the souls of the deceased tanim, that those who disturbed the souls would be subject to the tanim’s wrath.
But the tanim were extinct. In all the moons Rasul had dug here, he hadn’t seen a scale or wing-tip of the creatures. Of course, he wasn’t about to discourage the locals from thinking of this place as dangerous. It served two jobs––solidifying his reputation as one who faced great danger for his craft and keeping other prospectors away.
“I think it was a magnificent beast,” Rasul said. “Perhaps the greatest of all the tanim.”
Almas’ jaw slacked. “Really?”
Baqir snorted. “Who cares?” He reached for his belt, ignoring the scimitar and grabbing his mukanasa instead, and began to sweep away the sand with the broad bristles.
“Oh, right!” Almas sprinted back toward the camel, his feet spraying sand. “Forgot my muka!” He snatched it from the saddle bag and hurried back to the bone with no signs of stopping.
Rasul grabbed Almas’ skinny arm before he could run right into the skeleton. “Careful,” Rasul snapped. “You could break the bones that way.”
Almas stared up at him with wide, scared eyes. “Sorry! But don’t we break them anyway so that more people can have a bone?”
“Yes, but they need to be clean breaks.”
“Get over here, boy, and start sweeping,” Baqir said without looking back.
“Sorry!” Almas ducked under the protruding bone and began clearing away the sand.
Rasul exhaled. Sometimes, the boy was more trouble than he was worth, but prospecting had certainly been easier since Rasul and Baqir had picked him up off the streets.
More of the skeleton began to appear. It broadened as it neared the spine. Rasul guessed that the bone was part of a deeply-buried ribcage, which was good news for him––many, many bones to sell. Perhaps he had been correct in telling Almas that this had been the most magnificent of all the tanim.
Rasul glanced around him. The wind was starting to pick up, but he hoped it wouldn’t cause too much trouble and bury what they’d just unearthed––
Almas screamed. Baqir let out a string of curses and tossed aside the mukanasa in favor of the scimitar. Rasul unsheathed his own scimitar and turned. Before him was a glorious, terrible creature with sand-colored scales and eyes as pale as the morning sky. Enormous wings stretched behind it, blocking the sun.
“A tanim,” Almas whispered, just loud enough for Rasul to hear.
But they’re extinct! Rasul gaped at the serpentine creature, praying to whatever gods were listening that it might be a mirage.
“So you’re the ones stealing our bones.” The words rumbled through the desert. Rasul’s bones changed to the consistency of sand.
“We didn’t know we were stealing them!” Almas blurted out.
“You didn’t know?” The tanim craned its neck forward, bringing its terrible face near them. Scimitars would never cut through those scales. “You defile our fallen warriors and believe yourself to be blameless?”
“But we’re trying to help people!” Almas’ bony legs rattled together. “We want to help them, bring them fortune and good luck!”
“Is that really what you think?” The creature let out a raspy laugh, baring blade-sharp teeth. “You foolish boy.”
Rasul didn’t know which was the worse threat––Almas believing the tanim or the tanim’s rage. But perhaps he could quell both with one blow. “We did not realize we had offended you,” he said, dipping his head. “Our apologies. We shall return at once to the village––”
“With the bones of my tribe in your sacks?” The tanim’s clawed feet thumped against the sand. Rasul skittered backward, as did Almas. Only Baqir stayed in place, waving his scimitar at the beast, as if that would help anything.
“What’s it to you?” Baqir glared up at the tanim. “You aren’t using the bones! Why can’t we?”
“Those bones belonged to our kin!” The tanim lashed its scaly tale, creating enough wind to stir the sand. “We honor our fallen, yet you would take that from us? You only wish for more money in your coffers.”
Rasul swayed on his feet, only now realizing the implications of the beast’s words. There are more tanim?
“That’s not true, is it?” Almas gazed at Rasul with wide, desperate eyes. “We’re helping people, not deceiving them. Right?”
Rasul forced a comforting smile. “Of course we’re not deceiving them. We want the best for our people, and we’re the only ones willing to do what it takes to get them there.”
“By raiding our sacred gravesite?” the tanim boomed.
“I . . . I thought . . .” Almas trailed away, his eyes moving from Rasul to the tanim.
“So you didn’t know?” The winged beast cocked its head and peered down at the boy. “You weren’t in this for your own gain?”
“Oh, no!” Almas shook his head vigorously, almost knocking his keffiyeh off. “I just wanted to help people, honest!”
“Stupid boy.” Baqir shook his scimitar. “I knew we shouldn’t have taken you on. You’re just a burden––”
The tanim swiped at Baqir with its paw, knocking him against the sand. “You turn on your own tribemate!”
Those claws. That gaping maw. Rasul trembled. He could never hope to outrun the beast, and his camel would be no help.
Struck with sudden hope, he offered, “You can have my camel––all our camels, even! I’m sure you’d like a tasty meal––”
Then the tanim’s claw was stretching toward him, and he leaped backward, his feet slipping on the sand, but he could not escape. Talons ensnared him in a thorn-sharp coffin and lifted him into the sky. He let out a desperate wail.
“Put me down!” Baqir shouted from the other claw.
Nothing Rasul could say would make a difference. His words were as good as ash. Cold, dark fear seized his heart.
“Don’t hurt me!” Almas’ voice trembled.
“I’m not going to hurt you.” The tanim spoke more softly. “Get on my back.”
“On . . . your back?”
Almas would have special treatment? “I’m the leader!” Rasul cried. “I should be––”
The tanim’s claws tightened, almost crushing Rasul’s ribs. He gasped, trying to bring air into his weakened lungs.
After a brief scrabbling sound, Almas said, “Your scales feel strange.”
The tanim let out a growl. “Are you secure?”
“Yes,” Almas said.
“How about you meet my kin?”
Meeting other tanim? Rasul thrashed against the tanim’s claw, bruising his arms. Baqir shouted swears from the other claw. Almas, though, was talking to the tanim in a low, awe-struck voice as the powerful wings began to beat. Then Rasul’s heart soared into his throat, and through the talons, he saw that the sand was moving further and further away.
We’re flying. Rasul’s mouth gaped. He’d never imagined such an experience, particularly not under such dire circumstances. Where were they going? Was there a water source near? Would he die of thirst? He’d left his waterskins on his camel. He’d left everything on his camel––his money, his identification. Would he ever be able to find that camel again?
Would he ever be able to leave?
Before him were great ruins the shade of sand, lined with cracks but still standing. The tanim flew through the gaping entrance, and for a moment, all Rasul could hear was the tanim’s wingbeats. But then he realized that there were more wingbeats, murmured voices too. They echoed in the massive stone building, making his head spin and the contents of his stomach lurch into his throat.
He vomited what his coin had bought him––rich lamb soaked in manash. Now, he suspected, he would never eat another meal––all because he’d wanted the quick money that the bones could give.
Rasul wiped his mouth with a trembling hand and peered through the gaps in the tanim’s claw. More tanim than he could have imagined swarmed around him, staring at him with slitted eyes. He could barely breathe.
“Wow,” Almas breathed. “They’re so . . . beautiful.”
Beautiful? They were deadly and fearsome, and they could swallow a skinny street boy like Almas in one gulp!
“I’ll protect you, young one,” the tanim said. “Just stay on my back.”
But the beast wouldn’t protect Rasul or Baqir, would it? “Please,” Rasul cried. “I will return the bones. I will give you whatever coin you ask. Just, please, spare me.”
The tanim snorted.
Rasul’s stomach clenched. “Please! I’ll do anything!”
“Rasul!” Baqir let out a snarl. “You beg like a coward! Shame on you!”
Yes, there was shame. So much shame. But shame did not matter. Rasul’s life mattered.
“Fight with me, and we shall defeat these foul creatures and have more bones to sell!” Baqir said.
“No!” Almas shouted. “Don’t hurt them!”
“We could never defeat them.” Rasul’s voice was hoarse. “We are at their mercy.” He breathed in the scent of his own vomit and listened to the deafening wingbeats. What a life he had lived. And now he was paying the price.
“Why should we show you mercy when you showed us no mercy?” the tanim hissed. “When you showed your people no mercy?”
Rasul could remember every set of trusting eyes handing over their life’s savings in exchange for a lie. He could remember every widow scrounging up a piece of coin, every street child begging for a scrap of bone. He could remember every moment spent counting his spoils, every delicacy he’d purchased with others’ money.
As soon as the tanim opened its vomit-spattered claw, Rasul ran. The wingbeats grew louder and louder until they drowned out the sound of his heartbeat thumping in his chest. Then the shadows closed in.
What do you think of “Sand Skeletons”? Let me know in the comments! Also, speaking of prompt contests, my next one will be held in April, so watch out for that!
Have a happy Friday, friends!