* * *
“I’m telling you this story because you are the only person I can trust not to judge me . . .”
Taj froze in response, mug of mead partway to his lips. His friend looked older somehow. It may have been the lighting in the tavern, or it could’ve been the many mugs of mead prior to the one he held. He set the pewter mug on the table and leaned back. “This oughta be good.”
Themba scowled at his friend. They had grown up in the village neighbors. Neither of them worried of the advancing years. They were celebrating Taj’s twenty-fifth birthday. They had celebrated the same for Themba only six months ago. “If you can’t handle it, perhaps I’ll keep it to myself.”
Taj leaned forward conspiratorially. He managed to force a smile through the cloud of inebriation. “Tell me, Themba.”
“I saw a woman in the desert,” Themba replied thoughtfully.
“Saw? Did you gather the courage to speak to this woman?”
“She spoke to me of desperate measures.”
Taj smiled, fervently empting his mug. “What did she say?”
“Not here, my friend. Meet me tonight at the arch.”
Taj shrugged. “You bring the mead and I’ll meet you anywhere.”
* * *
Taj leaned against the great arch. He didn’t know why they called it ‘great.’ There were stories about the arch. It used to be covered with gleaming brass. Artisans used to polish the brass with leather and cloth so that it gleamed. There were great men whose sole purpose was to spend hours every day to maintain the arch. The great arch could be seen many legions across the desert. It was said that caravans never ventured out too far as to not lose sight of the landmark. If ever one felt homesick, the next dune promised a view of the great arch.
Taj shook his head and ran his palm against the rough stone. Bandits stole some of the brass, but the wars of the past were the true thieves. The brass was ‘repurposed’ as swords and armor. When the war finally ended, no one returned the precious metal, and the world had lost a monument to human engineering.
Taj felt something in the pit of his stomach as he ran his fingers along a recess in the arch. He had been told the original purpose was to store the tools to maintain the metal, but now…
Now, Taj thought, it gathers sand.
Taj shook his head and sat at the base of the arch. Great or otherwise, he thought, this is where I’lll meet Themba.
Taj sat up straight and peered into the desert. The voice was a whisper and he couldn’t be sure the wind wasn’t playing tricks on him. He could hear the distant rumble of an unseen rain shower.
“Themba?” the voice whispered again.
Taj stared at the empty pewter mug tied to his tunic. Perhaps I’ve had too much, he thought.
“Themba, where are you?”
This time Taj stood and stepped towards the great desert. “Hello?” he asked tentatively.
“You’re not Themba,” the voice responded.
“No, he is my friend, I’m supposed to meet him here.”
“The hour is late,” the voice whispered, “I might not be able to wait for him.”
Taj looked over his shoulder at the arch and took another step into the desert. “I’m Themba’s oldest friend, can I act in his stead?”
A woman appeared in the brilliant light of the moon. She wore a simple white gown. It wasn’t her pale skin or vibrant blond hair that suprised Taj. It wasn’t the fact that the woman wore no shoes or had no gear or provisions to be in the great desert at night. It was her stunningly red lips. Taj couldn’t help himself as he stared at the woman.
“I’ve come to return his beast of burden.”
Taj smiled slightly. She has provisions after all, he thought. Aloud he replied, “I can for the beast if time is short.”
The woman smiled. “I’ll have you know if Themba’s beast isn’t returned, I’ll be angry.”
“Take the beast,” The woman commanded.
Taj looked around for Themba’s faithful companion. “Mi’Lady, I don’t see Themba’s mule.”
“Apologies, friend of Themba.” The woman closed her eyes and the sand of the great desert rose to form an impressive approximation of Themba’s mule.
“Sorcery!” Taj cried and stepped back from the woman.
“Lady Akila needs not resort to trickery.”
Taj spun on his heel to see his friend approach with a torch. The flickering of the fire deepened the shadows at the corners of his eyes, but his eyes… I’ve not seen my old friend with this particular sparkle in his eye, Taj thought.
“Lady Akila, has my beast performed its duties to your satisfaction?”
Akila smiled and walked to greet Themba. They embraced and after a lingering hug, they walked to the sand sculpture. “Lady Akila,” Themba announced, “my mule is hardly fit in its present form.”
Akila walked to the sculpture and kissed the beast’s muzzle. Taj watched in amazement as the sand turned into Themba’s mule. The beast chuffed and stamped its hoof.
“I wish to compensate you for the use of your beast.”
Themba bowed deeply at the waist. “Service to you Mi’Lady is reward enough.”
Taj smacked Themba on the shoulder. “Themba…” he hissed.
Akila smiled. “Your friend doesn’t think that an equitable compensation.”
Themba squeezed Taj’s shoulder before stepping toward Akila. “Lady Akila, there is but one thing I would request from you.”
“Themba,” Akila replied, “You have assisted me for more than five decades without asking for a thing.”
“Five decades?” Taj stammered.
“Lady Akila, I ask that you grant my friend the gift only your lips can offer.”
Akila stepped towards Taj and kissed him lightly on the cheek. Taj felt heat radiate and his heart race. The cloud he had lived in for the last few years suddenly cleared.
Akila stepped toward the stone arch and stared at its apex. “This thing looked so much better covered in brass.”
“I remember, Lady Akila.”
Akila smiled and turned to a sand likeness. Just as the sand rose to form Themba’s mule, Akila’s sand form sunk into the endless desert.
Next: Stories Impossible