A Chapter of… Border of Bones

I am desperately trying to encourage my already-addled noggin to learn new tools. Apparently I’m a secret masochist who really likes working on increasingly more time-consuming projects until I have zero time left. Yay. There has to be something wrong with me. I don’t know.

This is one I’m actively working on, so the major portion of it is over on my Patreon if you really want to see it. Only fifteen dollars a month will get you every finished chapter I have to offer. Unless I have more than three chapters because I figure three chapters a week is more than plenty.

There’s going to be a trilogy under the central title of Kingdom of Sand. However, I’m not doing the whole title because it’s pretty darn long.

You’ll likely get the leftovers in the following week. Chill. Anyway… This one’s a fantasy setting because I like alternating between fantasy and scifi. I have more fun that way. And now… the chapter:


When Sanaa was born, three Sevenyear before she discovered the Milkskin Lands, men’s eyes had already been turned towards the sparkling centre of the Devouring Desert for a century. There, they said, was a city made of diamonds. It certainly glittered like such a city, and attracted the Milkskin men’s avaricious gaze like a jackdaw might be attracted to a pile of shiny rocks or polished pennies.

That year, the leading contender to reach the shining spires in the centre of the Devouring Desert was an explorer known as Berthold the Bold. He was advancing in years and some wags were calling him ‘The Bald’ as well. Nothing had stopped him. No gigantic beast of mountain, stream, forest or field had bested him yet. His plan to cross the sandy wastes involved an entire herd of desert-dwelling kamils and other beasts acclimated to dry and desolate areas.

He set out with twenty kamils, fifty men, forty-seven goats and enough water and wheat for them all to live for four times forty days with harsh rationing. He set out to the cheers and good wishes as he crossed the border between the living lands and the Devouring Desert and its border of bones.

They could see him travelling for all of the morning, stop and camp for a lunch, and pick up further for the afternoon. By all accounts, he was well prepared for any desert crossing.

He was not prepared for the Sandwraiths.

They came on him and his party at sunset, first appearing to be odd ripples in the shifting sands, then following the party like sharks might follow a dog in the ocean, or ravens might follow an injured and bleating lamb. They grew as the colours set in the sky, their shadows growing definite in the twilight. They struck just as the sun touched the horizon, overwhelming men, kamils, goats, and supplies. They were too far away for their screams to be heard, though some observers saw the men valiantly attempting to use bow and blade with no success.

Two weeks later, the empty, dry bones of Berthold the Bold, his men, his kamils, and his goats all joined the bleached tangle on the border. None could tell his skull from any other.

When Sanaa turned five, and learned that there were different types of people, a different kind of genius approached the deadly, circular desert. This one was a tinkerer and maker of clever devices. His name was Zephram Gadget, and his method of crossing the hungry wastes was an invention he called the Yagahaus.

It was a contraption of steel and steam, operated by clever levers and working with smarter gears and springs. It walked on gigantic, wide feet that would not sink its immense weight into the sand. With three hundredweight of coal and a giant tank of water, he said, he would easily traverse the wastes in comfort.

The Yagahous was slower than a herd of kamils, that was certain. The people quickly bored of its slow and logical progress during the day it left. They could trace it by the light of its boiler’s fires into the night, and it was still trudging inexorably along by the next dawn.

Small Sandwraiths were already attempting to overwhelm its immense, wide feet. They could see, through telescopes, the Sandwraiths splashing against the feet and legs of the Yagahaus like waves against a shore stone. The storytellers say that a great cheer rang out, and people wagered heavily on the success of Zephram Gadget.

He and his Yagahaus made it further than Berthold the Bold, but not by much. A league, they say, perhaps two. The Sandrwaiths splashed harmlessly against the feet, for a league, then they all formed a gigantic wave of sand, four times the size of the Yagahaus. The wave washed over it, and it was never seen again.

Two weeks hence, a solitary skeleton’s scattred bones joined the notorious border. Zephram’s leather apron, too, and his leather boots and leather gloves. The leather of his belt was found, but no buckle nor button nor thing of metal or flesh was ever recovered.

When Sanaa turned eight, and learned that she was truly different from the other girls in her town, the favourite to cross the desert was Albiar Cleverhand. She had made wings out of silk and light woods, stiff like the wings of an albatross. She had a sling for her body and light supplies to keep her alive, and her team of helpers had a clever mangonel that launched her into the air. She used the heat of the desert to circle higher and higher, then turned her wings towards the glittering spires in the distance.

The telescopes watched her brightly-coloured wings sail over Sandwraiths large and small. Not one of them could pinpoint the moment in which she died. Some observers recorded seeing glints of light shoot up from the largest Sandwraiths. Others swore they saw the shining spires themselves flash in a manner that was not born of the sun’s reflection. The wings sailed straight into a crystalline wall and when they bounced away, they spiralled into the sand.

Brightly-coloured silk and the wreckage of their frame washed up on the border of bones, with what little was left of Albiar Cleverhand. The silk was gone before the news reached the marketplace, taken for its value by weight. The frame vanished, soon after. More likely for use as firewood than anything else.

Sanaa, at age ten, was unaware of any of this. She went from wise man to wise woman, trying to find out why she was so different. Why everyone said she was a boy and how that could be changed. Many said that she was a boy and that it couldn’t be changed. Sanaa kept looking for answers.

When Sanaa was eleven, and she found some answers, she left her town on the train of trader wagons. She followed gossip, rumour, and things heard from friends through every path she could take. That was also the year that Emion Daagrace, who sponsored the construction of a gigantic, wooden pier out into the Devouring Desert. 

The reasoning behind the construction was sound. The Sandwraiths never once touched anything wooden. Therefore, the pylons, crossbeams, and planking would remain intact. Workers would be free to traverse the dry pier in safety and, bit by bit, yard by yard, progress would be made towards the shining spires in the far distance. In order to prove the construction was safe, Emion was out on the furthest edge, every day. No metal was allowed anywhere on site. Not iron bottoms on the worker’s sabots, not a single copper groat in the worker’s purses, not even metal fillings in the people’s teeth. Not a single mote of metal.

They all knew how metal could draw the Sandwraiths, by then.

The crews were beyond careful, constructing watchtowers that were also worker’s dorms, every two hundred yards. Making certain the wood was cured and dry off-site before bringing it to the construction area. Even the pile drivers were weighted with common stone instead of iron or lead.

They retreated when the sun neared the horizon, since the Sandwraiths liked to strike in the night. They did everything they could to evade notice. Or so they thought.

Nevertheless, mere months after Hero’s Launch renamed itself to Drypier, the Sandwraiths came and devoured the entire crew. Fifty men, twenty women, and Emion Daagrace. They had made it one league into the Devouring Desert. The pier still stands, but the bones of workers and lord alike have tangled in the border of bones.

When Sanaa was thirteen, and learning alchemy with the Turukh peoples, medicine with the Qin, and sciences with the Hannish; the most famous seeker for the shining spires was a mageweaver called Soulweft Cleevright. She claimed to have a means by which she could appear to be just like the Sandwraiths and therefore evade their notice.

The method employed a great amount of rare quartz, three fully-charged leyden jars, and an elaborate, full-body harness of her own making, beset with magical crystals. Once she stepped off the dry pier and into the sands, she seemed to become sand. For three hours, as she journeyed across the desert, her method appeared to work.

The Sandwraiths knew her from the beginning, the songs said after the fact. They were merely waiting for her to walk beyond the distance in which she could safely run back. The sands swallowed her whole, and if her bones made it to that sandy shore, they were no different to any others that came to rest there.

The year Sanaa turned fifteen, and she first heard of the magics inherent in Jutelund, the reigning monarch changed the reward from lands and titles to the winner’s own weight in gold. This was the year of the first collaborative effort by the poor to at least reach the shining spires. Thousands swarmed the dry pier, some carrying others. Walking over the bodies of those who came before them. If they were quick enough, they collectively reasoned, then they might just go further than any one had gone before. If the sand was busy swallowing some, they reasoned, then it could not swallow all.

Of such logic, tragedies are made. They were wrong.

Thousands perished, and the border of bones was thicker than it ever had been before.

The reward was quickly rescinded, but that didn’t stop latecomers with hare-brained schemes making the attempt.

At Seventeen, armed with her knowledge and a special container for the Mothering Yam from her homeland, Sanaa began asking traders if they knew of Jutelund and the people of the Milkskin Lands. She had grown her hair long, and done everything she could to appear to be a young woman, but she was still incomplete and she knew it. That knowledge… pained her. Even though no-one else could tell on the street, Sanaa knew, and it hurt her soul. The extract of her yam helped, certainly, but it wasn’t enough.

Since science was only able to help her a little, she sought answers with magic. Answers to one question that had ruled most of her life:

Is there something that can change that which appears male into that which is female… through and through?

Though the words, I don’t know, were a valid answer, Sanaa kept searching for someone who would know. At best, she sought someone who did know. Praying, all the while, that when they did know, they would know that the answer was yes.

It was a distant hope for Sanaa, but it kept her sane nonetheless.

The traders travelled slowly, and insisted on charging in one way or another for the use of their fires, carts, and caravans. Food, fire, or fornication, nobody rode for free. Sanaa kept her privates private, paying in entertainment care of a simple wooden flute or tales she had heard along the way. Sanaa was a decent enough cook, all things considered, but the caravans inevitably preferred her knowledge of medicine.

She felt a stab of irrational jealousy every time she helped a woman give birth. That could have been her burden and her blessing, were it not for an accident of her own birth.

Was she lucky, that she had never known that pain, or unlucky that she craved to know it? Sanaa could not tell.

Some towns called her demonic, both for the colour of her skin and the way her patients made near miraculous recoveries. Some places insisted that she ate children, despite a considerable lack of evidence. Some merely treated her as if she were a pet to be touched by any unwashed hand, simply to sate their curiosity.

There were an alarming number of peoples who had never seen anyone as black as Sanaa, and wanted to know if she was the same colour all over. They were not satisfied by the relative pallor of her palms, and she was equally as unlikely to strip for them.

Sanaa learned quickly, especially when it came to determining who may follow her whenever she went to bathe. There were some secrets, she knew, that many were not capable of accepting. She had earned more than bruises, finding that out. She did not wish to risk more because someone made an unwelcome discovery.

Of course Sanaa learned to defend herself, amongst her many other skills. However, her very nature meant that it was far better for all if she just left the crew with the overly curious members and found a better way on her own, or with another crew.

It was lonely, she had to grant, but it was better than the hurtful alternatives.

When Sanaa turned twenty, she learned of the reward – a granted wish – for crossing an impossible desert.

Getting there would not be easy. More than half the caravan trains she asked for passage wanted to show her off in their freak shows. This did nothing for Sanaa’s confidence.

It was during those years that the truly desperate came to Jutelund. Those with high hopes and fond dreams. Those with clever schemes and ingenious plans.

One decided to build a pipeline from all of Drypier’s privies to the Devouring Desert, to attempt to overwhelm it with the dirt from whence mankind was made. The desert took it all without any sign of rejection, and the genius who thought of it set out across the sands with a song of his own praises on his lips.

The Sandwraiths devoured him, all the same.

One thought of skating across the sands in a vehicle made entirely of wood, operated by clever winches and rope. They, too, fell to the sands.

When Sanaa came to the Milkskin Lands at last, she asked for every tale of the desert that ate people. Some must be fanciful, she thought, but there were too many tales with the same kind of testimony. The sand, they said, was alive.

She was out of money and losing hope when she came to Moss Hollow, and spent her last copper coins on a bowl of stew that would change her life.

As she sat eating, the rooms of the inn filled with people who came to watch her eat. She knew exactly why they came. None of these Milkskin peoples had ever seen anyone as black as Sanaa. They came to look, and whilst they were there, they spent their coin.

She surprised them by talking in their language, though it was with an accent that some were wont to make mock of. It was that night that the innkeeper, Valund Oakwright, made her an offer. A room with a bed, and regular work that wasn’t too taxing. She could grow her foreign plant on his lands and even work her magic with it, so long as she didn’t curse anyone. All she had to do was spend most of her time in the inn walls, and thereby increase his business.

“I do not make magic,” she said. “I have a little skill with reading fortunes, but that is all.”

“You makes potions,” argued Oakwright. “That’s magic enough for me.”

She would try to explain the logic and reason behind what she did with her Mothering Yams, to make medicine, but logic and reason were beyond the grasp of a man like Oakwright. They were magic to him, forevermore.

Sanaa was never one to rest with the knowledge already in her head and in her journals. When she wasn’t working in or around the inn, she was out talking to the wise women. Learning of the medicines of the Milkskin lands, that which always worked and that which tricked the patient’s mind into believing themselves into better health. Sanaa excelled at the latter.

The Milkskin folk wanted to believe she had all kinds of knowledge and spells from her homeland and her travels. If she wanted to lie more than she usually did, she could dress up any remedy with sultans and emperors and tales of dragons and elements. If she wanted to lie. Sanaa preferred the truth, though there was always one truth she kept to herself. The people here were superstitious and prone to cowardice, and it would be easy to turn their reverent belief into anger and hatred and accusations.

She learned, because learning was how the world changed. She learned of hedge-magery and small magics, she learned of herbal remedies. She learned that Moss Hollow was one of those places that people never truly stayed. They passed through. It was just that some took their time in passing, and some of them happened to pass on whilst they were there.

Bad luck, they said.

Sanaa also learned their legends and tales, and why they were so relatively trusting of someone so different. Whenever there was an agent of change, it was always a wandering foreigner who came with knowledge or skill.

Well.

Sanaa had both.

As soon as she could raise the funds to travel once more, she would leave Moss Hollow and find her way to the city called Drypier. Only once she was there, would she find all the secrets of the Devouring Desert and its shining spires.

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