The day my sister was stolen from us, I swore I would either bring her home or kill myself for having failed.
It was a mostly cloudless day in Shanduhar. Bracing gusts had swept through the oasis on and off since mid-morning prayers. Aria and I had been feeding the camels. Our younger brother Eran was charged with cleaning out the rain barrel or face the back of Mother’s hand. I ran to his side to help before the precious remaining water tumbled into the sand rather than into Mother’s clay jar.
I had left Aria’s side for a blink of an eye, the amount of time it takes to recite a few words of the Blessing of Sol. A blinding light flashed, followed by thick orange dust stinging our eyes and choking our noses, stunning us, and rendering us motionless.
Prince Damien’s black chariot appeared. He must’ve been hovering in stealth mode above us while we were focused on our chores.
Eran’s legs had stiffened in a forward lunge. My arms and legs wouldn't budge either. A dust devil barely wider than my sister’s slim shoulders engulfed her and began sucking her stock-still form upward into his chariot.
A cacophony of laughter pealed from the chariot, mocking our despair. The driver cracked a heavy whip and cried, “Huzzah!”
I coughed violently to clear my throat. “Mother!” I wailed.
She bolted out of the yurt, hands flying, clearing a path through the lingering smoke particles. She turned to see a royal chariot streaming toward the heavens and clutched her heart. Eran fell to the ground, wheezing and crying, “Mother! He took Aria!”
"Come back, come back!" Eran cried. "Why did he do that?"
Mother and I knew why the prince had abducted our beautiful Aria even if Eran was too young to understand.
Mother sobbed uncontrollably. "Orphia, you couldn't save her?”
Eran wiped his face, rising to his feet, steadying himself on the rain barrel. “There was nothing she could’ve done, Mother. It all happened too fast.”
The poisonous dust’s paralyzing agent was only temporarily debilitating. Some feeling was already returning to my limbs. I began shaking out my arms and legs to hasten my recovery. I was able to breathe again unlabored.
Was there any way I could save Aria? What could I do with no one to help me? Eran was a boy whose face would be soft and delicate for dozens more moons. He'd have to stay with Mother. Too little time remained to go searching for help at the next oasis. If I ventured forth by myself to rescue Aria, I would be pitting myself against a cruel and lawless prince whose kingdom floated far above us, one protected by simpering toadies, that’s what Father once called them—those idiot guards who did whatever the Prince ordered or were beheaded for their defiance.
I placed my hand on my heart. “I’m going to get her back. I swear I will.”
“I want her back, too. But you cannot go, Orphia.” Mother shuddered. “Without your father here to protect us, I forbid it.”
“He will not magically reappear just because we are in trouble. He made all this trouble for us. He abandoned us,” I protested though I hardly needed to remind Mother of a reality that must have haunted all her waking hours. “Besides, the twin moons were nearly full last night. You know what happens when the moons fill...what Damien does to girls like Aria. My trip can’t wait.”
Mother wept openly. “If you fail, I will have lost both my daughters.”
“If I don’t try to rescue her, she's as good as dead.”
Mother shook her head. “First, your father goes away. Then Aria. Now you?” She clutched Eran to her side. “We can’t go on without you.”
"We'll manage, Mother," Eran offered.
I swallowed, my voice softening. “This battle to save Aria is my destiny, isn’t it?” Father and I had trained hard in anticipation of such a challenge. He always believed Prince Damien or his scion would try to take our lands and even our lives if it suited his evil purpose. So, Father taught me strategy and weaponry. First, his lessons and then his abandonment made me stronger…as strong as any young man from any Shanduhari village. “Despite what you may think of Father now, he'd want me to rescue Aria. I’m battle-tested because of him. Because of you. You knew I would be a fighter.”
Mother named me Orphia while I was in her womb. Using grains of desert sand, like her mother and her mother’s mother before her, she divined my purpose as a warrior and, one day, as the savior of someone she deeply loved. She thought I’d be the one to save our father, who used to smuggle opium out of Shanduhar until he deserted us, blinded and blighted by his addiction to it. While he was lost to me, I still felt I could save Aria. I wanted to save someone so sweet and vulnerable, someone who deserved my protection.
“I won’t fail, Mother,” I said, tottering toward one of the camels, whose legs had also been weakened by the poisonous agent. I massaged them. “C’mon, Loka. Attaboy.”
Once Loka had sloughed off the dust’s effects, I dragged him to the family’s airship obscured beneath a grove of date palm trees. I tied his harness to the ship and coaxed him forward, freeing the ship from its leafy canopy. I untied him, slipping him a handful of dates for his efforts. I whistled Eran over to return Loka to the watering hole.
He sniffled. “Please come home.”
I nodded. “Take care of Mother.”
I climbed into the airship. Today, I would come face to face with everything the gods had ordained for me. I would save my sister Aria from becoming another of the prince’s sacrifices by using my wiles, my courage, and my strength and steal her back.
I checked the fuel level, set the controls for takeoff, and engaged the engine. I needed a co-pilot, but since camels couldn’t fly an airship, I set course for Damien’s sky kingdom. It floated some 10,000 cubits above Shanduhar, resting on a thunderhead as deep and wide as 1,000 camels end to end.
My father had built this ship for smuggling. He had secret compartments tucked into the sides of the cockpit where Aria and I hid whenever we played “Find Me” as kids. Later, we discovered that those panels hid opium in the event Damien's men ever seized his ship. Father had stashed weapons there, too. I needed some of each to breach the castle.
I pushed the secret panel, unlocking the compartment. Inside lay a spear and a steel-handled scimitar as long as my arm. I removed the weapons and dug around both corners, seeking a little vial or two. No opium.
I had no more time to waste searching. Right now, they’d be washing and perfuming Aria for the Royal Inspection. If Damien found something he didn’t like, he’d slit her throat in his presence, allowing his pet leopards to lap up her blood. If she were deemed suitable, once the prince stole her maidenhood, she’d be manacled and readied for sacrifice at midnight. With my wiry hair, too-long nose, and small breasts, I was never in danger of being abducted for one of his virgin offerings. My sister’s perfection had been her curse. She was doomed either way.
As I neared the kingdom, shards of lightning tore the sky. Thunder roared in my ears, and I struggled to focus. I took a few deep breaths, in and out, set the controls for HOVER, and activated the GOSSAMER mode, which obscured the airship in a shimmering spider web as strong as steel. The ship would be waiting for me, invisible from all enemies, until I returned with my sister.
“Looking for these?” a man’s voice boomed from the back of the ship.
I wheeled around and unsheathed the scimitar, ready to strike. I gasped. “Father?”
He stepped forward, several opium vials cupped in his hands. “I didn’t mean to startle you,” he said, his voice softening. “You were seeking my stash.”
I wanted to hug him, but then I remembered I hated him for leaving us. For the second time that day, I wiped tears from my eyes. “Why didn’t you come home?”
“I wanted to. I was hiding in the airship, waiting for the right time—the courage—to approach your mother.”
“Damien took Aria for his next sacrifice.” I realized my voice was breaking because I hadn’t seen Father in 100 moons and was despondent over the impending sacrifice of my sister. “I can’t save her. I can’t penetrate the thunderhead.”
“Nonsense,” Father said. “It’s all for show. Like building a fortress on the highest hill. Scares away the faint-hearted.”
“How do you know it’s nothing but trickery?”
“Who do you think are my biggest opium clients?”
“You’ve been there? I never saw the airship leave the oasis.”
“HOLOGRAM mode,” he explained.
I didn’t have time to process how long Father had been lying to us. “Are you still enslaved by that damn powder? You tore our family apart, you know.”
“I don’t answer to you,” Father said.
I assumed from that response that he had not dispatched his nasty opium habit. “I have to leave.”
“I’m going with you.” He stuffed the opium in his tunic pocket. “The guards will likely remember me.”
I handed him a spear.
“No, give me the scimitar. I am a master,” he said. “Don’t move.”
In a flash, he caught the hem of my shift with the weapon and ripped the side seam from the knees up.
“What are you doing?” I cried.
“You must look like my prisoner. Your face needs bruising, too.”
I pointed the spear at him. “I’ll do it.” I balled up my fist and pummeled the side of my face. Then I gave the other cheek several hard slaps. “Will that do?”
He tossed me a leg cuff attached to a chain. “Muss up your hair. And lock up your ankle. When we’re ready to fight, I’ll release the chain. You remember what I taught you?”
I attached the iron to my foot. “I have perfected what you taught me.”
He cinched the scimitar to his sash, tossed a black bag over his shoulder, and shrugged. “A smuggler’s toolkit.”
We pushed open the hatch and exited the ship. My father removed a carabiner from the bag, clipped it to his waist, and took out a piton tied to a rope about twenty feet, hurling it over our heads. Once the piton caught a crag, he tugged at it and tossed me the other end.
“Hang on,” he said. “Be ready to kill on my command.”
We scaled a rocky pitch through faux clouds, enduring sham lightning and thunderous sound effects, then wound through lots of artificial fog until we reached the castle walls. I was hunched up, stumbling behind my father, providing a convincing demonstration as his wanton captive when the guards stopped him.
“By order of Prince Damien, halt. Or you will be slain where you stand.”
“Friends. Do you not remember me?” With his left hand, he removed the opium vials in his pocket and opened his palm, tossing one to each of them.
“Zoni,” one guard said, laughing and lowering his spear. “You old goat.”
“What do you have here?” the other guard asked, eyeing my torn dress.
“My prisoner. She’ll make a good sacrifice,” Father said.
The first guard cackled. “Too ugly. You must be blind as well as dumb, Zoni.”
“A useful slave then. She can tell your future.”
The second guard approached me, pressing the tip of his spear into my chest. “So, slave girl. What is my future?”
“You will enjoy a nice, long opium stupor.” Everyone laughed heartily at that, even Father. “Then you will die quickly.”
“Who is this impudent wench?” He bristled. “I’ll kill her myself.”
“Now,” Father commanded, dropping my chain, whipping the scimitar into his free hand to behead the first guard while I wrenched the second guard’s spear from him and stabbed him in the neck. Father then slipped into one of the guard’s uniforms, and we used the rope and piton to scale the castle wall, easing down the other side.
“Go find your sister,” Father said, tossing me the key to my ankle cuff. “I’ll create a distraction.”
While I unlocked myself, Father pulled out a flame thrower from the smuggler’s bag and handed the bag to me. Then, whoosh, a pair of palm trees flanking the entrance went up in flames. He cried, “Fire! Fire!”
I was almost certain the prince held my sister in the tower. While other guards rushed out helter-skelter, I tucked the bag under my arm, sneaking past them and ascending the palace stairs. At the top of the stairs, off to the right hung a beaded curtain. I tiptoed along the wall until I reached the colorful drapery and peered inside the room. Prince Damien’s back was facing me. Aria sat naked, shivering, on the edge of a circular bed. He had pinned her head in his lap with his left hand.
I had but one chance to hit him dead on. I raised the spear, crashed through the curtain, and brayed the Shanduhari war cry, aiming for his nape. It sailed straight through his neck, missing Aria’s lowered head. He collapsed, his head smacking the marble floor.
“Orphia!” Aria cried and fainted in a heap on the floor.
I roused her and yanked one of the sheers off the bed rod. “Aria! Wrap this around yourself. I’m taking you home. Follow me.”
She tied off the fabric around her shoulder, grabbed my arm, and pointed me in the other direction. “This way. It takes you to a side entrance where they brought me in, out of view of his children.”
Once we cleared the castle, we darted to the nearest section of wall. I yanked another rope and piton out of the bag, pitching the hook toward the top of the wall where it caught hold between two rocks. I handed Aria the rope and boosted her up, climbing right behind her. Before going over the side, I wolf-whistled for Father. He spotted us and made a run for the gate. I helped Aria down the other side, and we tore off toward the airship.
Father shouted, “Go! Don’t look back.” Then the long, sawing roars of Prince Damien’s leopards overpowered a chorus of agonizing screams. Then silence.
The rope was dangling from the crag where we’d left it. Royal guards were fast approaching as we lowered ourselves down the side of the cliff, clambered atop the airship, and crawled inside.
Aria wrapped her arms around herself and sank to the floor. I checked the controls, switched the ship into GOSSAMER mode, and hunkered down.
“The leopards—” Aria wept.
I shook my head, then squeezed her hand, holding back my tears. "You're safe now. Think only of that."
Father was a survivor. He had scraped by and scrambled out of jeopardy many, many times. Some part of me believed he actually survived the attack from those deadly cats because he had more lives than any cat. I had to hope that he’d pop in another time when we least expected him.
“So many moons without him," Aria said sorrowfully. "I only caught a glimpse of him from the castle wall.”
"You know what he was, how he worried us all. What he failed to do. But, despite all his faults, we will tell Mother he was heroic today. She will know what he sacrificed for us.”
Aria nodded, so I switched off HOVER mode, turned the airship around, and set our course for Shanduhar.
About the Creator
Gale finally found a constructive outlet for storytelling in her fourth decade, writing creatively since 2005, winning numerous awards for fiction. She's published three novels and has a master’s in creative writing from Wilkes University.
Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!