Desert Sapphire

One

“Four thousand years ago, there were no kingdoms at all. No Kazin, no Llayad, no Tsayth, not even any Raykin.”

Raqif snuggled down into his blankets on the cool sandstone bed of his modest bedroom, his large brown eyes glittering with anticipation. Of all the bedtime stories his mother told him, the retelling of Raykin’s first king was his very favourite.

“But even way back then,” his mother continued, “the legend of the yrae was strong, even stronger than it is now. But nobody had ever seen one. One day, in a tiny little village even smaller than our very own Ni-Horia, a boy called Yan left to go hunting to get food for that night. He was off in the desert, a long way from his home, when he saw a shape in the sky. He knew instantly what the flying creature was.”

“What was it, Mummy?” The five-year-old knew well what the beast was, but no matter how many times he heard it, he could never tire of the vivid picture his mother painted for him with her words.

Aiku grinned, a fascinating light shining in her dark eyes. “It was an yrae. Its long neck stretched out in front of its small blue body, and wide white and blue wings reached out to each side. But all Yan could see was the glittering blue sapphire at the tip of its long, ribbony tail.”

“Wow,” Raqif breathed. He closed his eyes briefly, seeing the mystical blue bird in the sky above him, just as Yan had done four thousand years ago. “What did he do next?”

“He was rooted to the ground in shock, as you can well imagine, but then he gathered himself and pulled his bow from his back, strung it with one of his arrows and let it fly.”

Raqif’s eyes were dancing with delight.

“When the arrow hit the beautiful bird, it dropped from the sky like a stone, landing with a thud behind a rock.” Aiku clapped a hand on Raqif’s knee to imitate the thud made by the yrae. “Then suddenly, a bright white flash, brighter than the sun, exploded from behind the rock, jolting Yan out of his trance.”

“Was he scared?” Raqif whispered, hugging his knees.

His mother laughed and shook her head. “Of course not! He ran up to the rock where the yrae had fallen, but there was nothing there. The yrae had disappeared. But, out of the corner of his eye, Yan noticed a blue sparkle.”

“The yrae stone?”

“That’s right. It had dropped from the tip of its long, ribbony tail and was lying in the red desert sand for all to see. So, he bent over and picked it up, then felt something strange on his back, like a whole lot of flies was crawling over his skin.”

The young boy squirmed under his blankets, but didn’t interrupt his mother’s story; the best part was yet to come.

“Yan frowned a puzzled frown, then took off his shirt to try and find out what was happening, but something hit him hard in the back, throwing him face first into the sand. When he stood up, there was nothing there.”

“What had hit him then?” Raqif wondered allowed, though he knew exactly what it was.

Aiku smiled warmly, humouring her son. “From Yan’s shoulders grew a huge pair of black bat’s wings. Twenty grown men wouldn’t have been able to reach from one tip to the other.”

The five-year-old grinned broadly and closed his eyes again, trying to imagine what it would be like to have wings, to be able to fly.

“What happened to the yrae?” he asked, still lost in his fantasies.

The young woman shrugged her fine shoulders. “I can’t tell you, as I don’t know myself,” she replied helplessly, “but there’s a rumour that one other has seen an yrae.”

Raqif’s eyes snapped open; he hadn’t heard about anyone apart from King Yan having ever found the mythical creature. “Really?”

Aiku nodded. “People say that there was a girl, two thousand years ago, who saw one too, but nobody really knows for certain.”

“Why not?”

“Well, remember how Yan made himself king?”

Raqif nodded eagerly.

“For a long time, he was a very good king, but later on in his life the power it gave him made him do mean things, even to his own people.”

“But then Qewir took the stone away from him,” Raqif interrupted, “So then Qewir was king.”

“That’s right. Everyone in Raykin thought it was the yrae stone that made him do mean things. So when this girl found her own yrae stone, she thought that the people back in her home city, Ni-Yana, would think she was mean too, so she went to live in the desert.”

Raqif paused for a while, taking this all in. “Didn’t she get lonely though?”

Aiku nodded dourly. “She was very lonely, but if she ever saw anyone, she flew away from them, because she didn’t want them to think she was mean. That’s why nobody knew anything about her. And since it happened so long ago, nobody even knows that she really existed.”

“What was her name?”

Aiku shrugged again, then gave a slight yawn. “Okay, that’s enough for one night, off to sleep for you.”

Raqif’s shoulders dropped and he put on one of his classic pouts.

Aiku laughed. “It’s not going to work this time, sorry Raqif.” She ruffled his rich black hair and blew out the candle by his side. “Night night, my little yrae,” she said warmly, planting a kiss on his forehead, “Sleep well.”

“Night, Mummy.” He was still grumpy that he wasn’t allowed to hear more about this new character, but that was soon forgotten once he had rolled over and drifted off to sleep.

Raqif stood silently on the hillside, eyes closed and face to the wind. It was so easy for him to lose himself there; he could almost feel as though he were flying. Below him, the humble beginnings of what would become the mighty Ra-Lin River flowed gently through the valley, breaking over the dark brown rocks and tumbling down towards the ocean.

Ahead of him, the thinly grassed hills rolled on. These gentle golden slopes were as mountainous as Raykin ever got, mere shadows of the snow-topped peaks of Kazin, the country to the north. From where Raqif stood, he could walk east for three or four days and reach Llayad, the kingdom Raykin shared its eastern border with.

Behind him, beyond the crest of the hill, lay his hometown of Ni-Horia—Hori’s city. A modest little village, Ni-Horia was only ever marked on the map because there was near to nothing else up in the hilly country. Most Raykinians tended to live on the plains, a fact Raqif could never understand. He couldn’t imagine living in a place where the horizon seemed to stretch on forever, where every blade of grass and every drop of water was a precious commodity. For all his sixteen years, he had never considered going to live in any of the big cities.

But there was always that one possibility that niggled at the back of his mind. There were exactly two thousand years separating King Yan and the unnamed girl who had found an yrae stone. Another two thousand years had passed since her supposed sighting. Raqif couldn’t help thinking there could be an yrae stone out there with his name on it.

“Why do you still believe in that story?”

Raqif was jolted unwittingly back into consciousness, snapping his eyes open and stumbling forwards from the surprise. “Because it’s true,” he defended softly.

Illi snorted. “Nobody believes that kind of drivel. It’s a story that has been told for thousands of years to children.”

“They believe it in Ni-Yana…”

“Well of course they believe it in Ni-Yana!” Illi scoffed, “They’ll believe anything in Ni-Yana. King Yan lived in Ni-Yana. You could convince them a sapphire was magical if you held it behind your back and it mysteriously moved into your other hand.”

“So you do believe in him?”

Illi rolled his eyes and started down the hill, a bucket in each hand. “I think he existed, but magic played no part in his life. As far as I’m concerned, Qewir was our first king. Why does it matter anyway? Come on.”

Raqif sighed, closing his eyes again and smiling wistfully into the wind.

“Raqif!”

“I know, I know.” He bent down to pick up his buckets then began trudging down the hill after his brother. “You just wait,” he muttered under his breath, “I’ll find one yet, and I won’t let you have a share in its magic.”

While the ancient beliefs of the yrae’s existence were considerably less respected in the northern high-country of Raykin, the customs set in place thousands of years ago for an adolescent’s coming-of-age were just as strong, perhaps even more so, than those upheld in the more populated cities downstream.

On the eve of his twentieth birthday, Raqif stood in the middle of the front room of his house, shoulders slouched and face showing a kind of bored annoyance. His only movements were when his mother tugged at an invisible wrinkle in his cream-coloured ceremonial robes. In a village as small as Ni-Horia, there were only four sets—two for the girls and two for the boys. All four were beginning to show their age, but obtaining more meant a three-month journey to the kingdom’s capital of Ni-Yana, a trek nobody was willing to make.

Finally, Aiku stood back to admire her son.

“Am I required to stand as I am until the feast begins?” Raqif muttered through gritted teeth. “The sun is still nowhere near the horizon.”

Aiku gave a soft, tinkly laugh. “Not quite. We must still attend to your hair.”

Raqif sighed indignantly, but reached up to grab the tie that held back at least half of his shoulder-length black hair and knelt down in front of his mother. Much as he disliked the tedious preparation that came before the festivities, he knew how important it was. If anything went awry, he would never hear the end of it, not from his mother or any other villager in Ni-Horia.

Eventually, a good hour after the sun had licked its last relish of light from the hushing grasses surrounding the village, Raqif’s mother was satisfied with his attire.

Raqif folded his arms over his chest, eyebrows arched over half-lidded eyes. “So now all I need do is survive the evening without moving, correct?”

Aiku pulled at his sleeve to straighten out yet another invisible crease. “No, just until the village has seen you as you are.” She smiled warmly and wrapped her arms around her son, resting her head on his shoulder. “You have grown into a very handsome young man, my little yrae.”

Raqif smiled despite himself, bending down to return the smaller woman’s hug. It had been years since she’d called him that.

“Thank you, mother,” he whispered.

An hour before high moon, all one hundred and thirty six villagers of Ni-Horia had gathered in the circular courtyard in the centre of the village, from the youngest child to the eldest, grey-haired resident. Ni-Horia’s only barman had opened the front of his tavern and had lined the bench with an array of celebratory foods; piles of different vegetable dishes, several plates of dried figs, dates and fresh grapes that had been brought in from one of the towns just over the eastern border, as well as the usual loaves of bread and freshly caught fish, though even these had been garnished with special herbs.

When he was certain his son had received all one hundred and thirty six hugs, Olam stood at the top of the courtyard and clapped his hands over his head a few times to gain the attention of the assembly.

“Thank you ladies and gentlemen for coming tonight to celebrate the hrai-dani of my son, Raqif. I would especially like to extend my gratitude to our female guests tonight, who have as always delighted us with an exceptional banquet.” He paused as a smattering of applause ran through the assembly. “Now we really must eat; time marches ever-onward and high-moon is fast approaching.”

For Raqif, the night was just a blur: the countless congratulations, his father’s speech about him just after high moon, the cheers for him when he stood up on the same platform before the village, now officially an adult… it all seemed foggy and in distant. It didn’t feel as significant as he thought it should.

He’d participated in many hrai-dani—coming-of-age celebrations—including his older brother’s, and each one had been more exciting than the last, knowing that he was drawing ever-closer to his own. But now that it was here, his mind was weighed down with more important things.

It happens tonight.

Finally, hours after high moon, the town centre emptied and the villagers retired to bed until well into the afternoon the next day.

Raqif lay under the light bed sheets, staring at the ceiling with his hands behind his head, watching as the silver starlight-tinted sandstone turned golden with the sun’s new light. He’d changed out of the ceremonial robes not long after he’d arrived home, and now lay fully dressed on his sandstone bed.

When he couldn’t wait any longer, he gave a long, determined sigh and stood up, grabbing his fishing rod, bow and arrows and his small bag of money, before walking out the front door. He paused there for a moment, looking back through the house’s eating room to where his parents lay, oblivious, in deep sleep.

“Mother.” His voice was so quiet even he could hardly hear it. “Next time you see me, you shall have good reason to call me your yrae.”

Holding the fishing rod in one hand, he sketched out his impression of an yrae in the dust outside the door, dropping a stone at the tip of its tail. He smiled down at the sketch, knowing it was a poor substitute for the real thing, but hoping it would be sufficient to let his parents know where he was, and hopefully not to follow. This was something he’d been dreaming of since his mother had first told him about the mystical creature. Nothing would make him turn back.

He sent one last glance into his parents’ bedroom then began walking the eerily deserted morning streets of Ni-Horia. There was no danger of being seen—nobody would be waking up until well after noon.

Raqif couldn’t help but stop a while on the familiar slope towards the Ra-Lin, closing his eyes to feel the crisp morning air tug at his hair and bite at his skin, not at all hinting at the heat of the day that was to come.

Slowly, he brought himself back to reality and made his way down the hill to the Ra-Lin, scooping up a handful of the clear, cool water before beginning his month-long trek down-stream to Ni-Mytaa. From there, the river kinked into a U-shape before curving around Ni-Yana, but Raqif imagined it would be easy enough to cut out the bend and go west through the desert, taking a week or two from his journey.

Raqif hitched his quiver more comfortably on his back and walked backwards to bid farewell to the sleeping village he had called home for twenty years.

Two