(Welcome to the second installment of our five-part swords and sorcery adventure. We join our hero, Radric, shortly after he discovered an ambush in the hot, arid desert of the B’Kar Waste. Each week DaRK PaRTY will publish another chapter in this pulse-pounding short story. A version of Sand was originally published in Lost Worlds: The Writers and Artists’ Science Fiction and Fantasy Forum.)
Two days later, Radric spotted a whiff of smoke twirling lazily across the sharp blue desert sky. He hobbled his mount and crawled to the top of the next dune. The sand had become more course and he knew that in a few days the D’jaren war party he was tracking would arrive at the western steppes of the B’Kar Waste.
The dune proved to be an excellent vantage point. The D’jaren party was camped a low steppe next to a desert stream, a thin trickle of dun-colored water that reminded Radric he was thirsty.
The D’jaren camels and the horses stolen from the dead soldiers were tied in a makeshift corral made of rope. Radric counted seven tents, including the large one at the center belonging to the D’jaren warchief.
Radric settled to wait.
The afternoon faded into twilight and the aroma of cooking wafted over Radric’s outpost. D’jaren were fond of sand lizards and the root of thistle cactus, which they ground into a thick paste. Two D’jaren warriors guarded the mounts and two others patrolled the perimeter of the camp. Radric leaned back against the sand and tried to remember everything he could about the D’jaren.
It was rare to meet a D’jaren outside their homeland and, in fact, Radric never had. His two encounters with them had been in battle in the B’Kar Waste when he had been a sell sword. He knew little of their culture. They were nomads and tribal. He knew of six or seven clans with names like Stone Lizard and Thunder Rock. The clans constantly feuded over territory.
The race was distantly related to humans, but smaller in stature. Their skin was pale yellow and hairless, thick and contoured like tree bark. D’jaren wore layers of brown, yellow, and white robes and Radric had heard that the colors signified status within the clan. Their most startling feature, at least to humans, was a flap of gelatinous skin that protruded from their foreheads and covered their faces – extending to their upper lips. This flap, known as a d’jar, was a great source of pride and often tattooed and decorated with gold and silver jewelry.
The d’jars main purpose was to shield the D’jaren’s eyes from the harsh wind storms of the B’Kar Waste. D’jaren eyes, said to be star-shaped vermilion-colored orbs about the size of raisins, were considered holy. It was forbidden for D’jaren to reveal their eyes in public; rare even in private. It was a sign of great honor and respect for a D’jaren to show his eyes to another.
The D’jaren did not “see” like humans. Somehow they were able to distinguish shadows and light, but relied more on hearing and scent. D’jaren saw the heat energy emitted by living creatures. Against the stark, lifeless background of the B’Kar Waste, living things glowed, allowing the D’jaren to see them. It was said that in a jungle, a D’jaren would be completely blind.
After another quick survey of the camp, Radric returned to his horse to wait for full dark. The dry, desert heat cooled as night approached. Radric crouched in the sand and ate a dinner of dried rabbit, hard cheese, and brown bread. His water supply was running dangerous low, so he took only a few conservative sips from his water skin.
As the first and second moons rose, Radric plotted his rescue of the wizard. The D’jaren party looked settled, which meant they were probably at a planned rendezvous site to wait for the rest of the clan. Once that happened there would be little chance of a rescue. Radric adjusted his saddle bags against his back and pondered.
Many years ago, he and Caswell had been traveling companions, if not friends. All that changed in Vixoria, the City of Saints, in the far east beyond the Churning Sea. There they met the Gypsy girl, Ttara, and the Mountain Dwarf, Shattock. Shattock knew of an out of the way warehouse that belonged to the High Temple of Vixoria. There were rumors of a forgotten sub-basement that stored old relics – golden goblets, jewel-studded scepters, ivory statues, and other exotic treasures. Shattock’s eyes glimmered as he regaled them with his tale. It had been a simple plan, one that relied on Radric’s warrior skills and Caswell’s magic. Greed must have consumed Caswell. It was the only explanation for what happened next.
In the end, Ttara and Shattock lay dead in the dust of the basement and the wizard fled with the booty. Radric survived the betrayal, crawling to Ttara’s side, shortly before she died, holding her cold hand as she wept into death. He had been captured by the High Temple Guard and spent two long years in a Vixorian labor camp, cutting stone and sifting through tons of sand. He picked up a handful of sand and let in run between his fingers. He had broken his vow never to touch sand again.
Radric escaped from the labor camp. He spent a long time searching for Caswell, but the wizard had disappeared and as the year wore on, Radric lost hope of ever finding him. He wandered, mostly in the south along the coast of the Great Sterling Ocean. The cities there were populous and wealthy. He gambled and drank; hiring out as a bodyguard or a sell sword – whoever would pay him the most coin. Then two months ago, he met the Lady Fflame of Lindell, a powerful kingdom in the west.
She was a woman scorned. Scorned by Caswell. The wizard had gained in stature since his days thieving in Vixoria. He was now a trusted advisor and comrade to the king of Lindell. Caswell ruled a portion of the kingdom known as Tarkkum. He lived in an elegant stronghold and commanded the Dark Tarkkum Guard, an elite corps of the Lindellian Army.
Radric touched the purse of gold coins Lady Fflame had given to him. She promised him more – much more, if he’d kill Caswell and bring her the wizard’s ring. Fflame knew nothing of the bitter hatred Radric felt for Caswell. She thought he was simply a paid assassin that she had met in a dark tavern. A mercenary. It had been a chance meeting. The chance of a lifetime. Radric had tracked the wizard to his stronghold in Tarkkum only to discover that Caswell had left for a junket to the B’Kar Waste to settle a border dispute with the D’jaren. A junket that had obviously met with failure.
From the folds of his saddlebags, Radric removed his prized possession – a midnight cloak. Even in the pitch blackness of the desert night, the cloak pulsed with blackness as deep as oil. The cloak was magic, sewn by Night Elves. Donning the cloak draped the wearer in invisibility. It wasn’t foolproof. To work, the wearer had to remain still, movement nullifying the magic’s effects. The cloak was also dangerous. It fed off the wearer’s soul. Wearing a midnight cloak too long was almost certain death. It wasn’t without hesitation that Radric donned the cloak over his armor and weapons.
Putting on the cloak felt very much like being dipped in ice water. He felt the familiar freezing of his blood and shuddered. Quickly and quietly, he scaled the dune and headed into the D’jaren camp. It was time.
(Stay tuned to next week's installment of Sand -- Chapter Three: Rescue)
The sun hung low on the horizon. Radric dismissed a brief notion to camp inside the carriage. Better to sleep away from the carrion eaters and the ghosts of the fallen guards. He mounted his horse and rode over the dunes until he found a rock outcropping that would break the cold, night wind of the waste.
He had found Caswell. Now all he had to do was rescue him from the D’Jaren.
(Stayed tuned for next week's installment of Sand -- Chapter Two: Discovery in the B'Kar Waste)
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Revel in the silence.
"War crimes like My Lai rightly arouse horror, but the psychology of such episodes is related to the psychology of much “normal” combat. Of course, the deliberate massacre of defenseless civilians is morally different from fighting armed enemy forces. Morally different, but in its psychology disturbingly close.”
-- Jonathan Glover, Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century
The alleged mass executions of civilians by U.S. troops in Iraq have brought up the inevitable comparisons by the mainstream media to My Lai, the infamous massacre of Vietnam villagers on March 16, 1968. Without diminishing the loss of life in either of the Iraqi episodes, neither one of them comes close to the scale of horror and destruction that was My Lai.
The most recent Iraqi case was the alleged murder of 11 villagers in Ishaqi, about 60 miles north of Baghdad. U.S. forces were conducting a raid on a known insurgent safe house, according to the Pentagon, when they engaged and killed four people, including an insurgent. The Pentagon acknowledged nine collateral deaths in the fighting, but concluded that U.S. troops acted appropriately.
Iraqi police, however, have accused the U.S. soldiers of deliberately executing innocent civilians, including five children and four women, and then hiding the murders by bombing the house where the alleged crime took place. To make matters worse, the BBC last week broadcast videotape that appeared to corroborate the Iraqi police’s version of the events.
The second Iraqi case took place in November 19, 2005, when U.S. Marines claimed that they were targeted by a roadside bomb in Haditha and then came under enemy fire. They reported that 15 Iraqis, including insurgents were killed. New evidence, however, questions the validity of this story and, according to the New York Times, 24 civilians may have been murdered in cold blood. Even worse, U.S. Marine commanders allegedly covered up the massacre.
Both Iraqi cases are under increasing scrutiny, but it remains to be seen if U.S. troops acted improperly in either case (although the mounting evidence seems to indicate guilt). It’s grossly unfair, however, to compare either case to My Lai – which may be the worst documented atrocity by U.S. troops in history. According to an account given in Jonathan Glover’s book Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century, this is what happened at My Lai:
One hundred and twenty soldiers from “Charlie Company” were sent to My Lai because, they were told, it was a Viet Cong stronghold. The company had been under intense combat for weeks with four soldiers killed and another 38 wounded. Before the raid, the U.S. troops were told to expect enemy soldiers and armed civilians in the village.
Landing by helicopters, the soldiers attacked the village – shooting people and animals as they moved in. Despite the fact that there was no evidence of Viet Cong activity in the village or any return fire (in fact not one shot was fired at the soldiers), Charlie Company went on a four-hour murderous rampage. They raped women and children. They slashed open the bellies of pregnant women, they disemboweled and tortured people, they executed villagers by lining them up and machine gunning them down, and they burned down every house. In the end, 500 people were murdered and My Lai was a smoking ruin.
Notwithstanding the seriousness of the two Iraqi cases, but they are a far cry from My Lai – where justice was again thwarted when only one soldier, Lt. William Calley, was tried, convicted, and spent a paltry three years in prison.
What’s perplexing about the Iraqi cases isn’t that they happen – atrocities always happen in war – but that the United States continues to naively believe that it doesn’t happen to us. There seems to be an enormous disconnect in this country about the meaning of war (this disconnect got more severe after 9/11). As former war correspondent and author Chris Hedges wrote in his book War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, war is always exposed for what it is: “organized murder.” War means murder, rape, torture, and atrocities because that’s what it is at its essence.
The idea behind “civilized and lawful” wars sounds nice during UN debates and on television talk shows, but once the bullets and bombs start to fly and people die, the rules don’t mean anything anymore. War breeds savagery and lawlessness. When you start a war – Ishaqi and Haditha – are inevitable consequences.
Yet, the United States widely supported the Bush administration on its march to war in Iraq – because we’re a country that still doesn’t understand war. That’s why these same supporters are now turning against the war in huge numbers as the unavoidable consequence of real combat now reveals itself.
War is ugly, which is why it should be the last possible option for resolving any crisis. It means children die, women are raped, and civilians are tortured. It means war crimes and mental illness. How dangerous is war for civilians? It’s more dangerous than being a soldier. Here are some disturbing figures from another Chris Hedges book What Every Person Should Know About War:
- Between 1900 and 1990, 43 million soldiers died in wars compared to 62 million civilians