Status

Recent Statuses

25 Mar 2017 0:54
Current "My thread is cut and yet it is not spun, And now I live and now my life is done."
3 Mar 2017 22:58
So wait the rise of the wooden man, and till he come the deserts scan: you'll know him by his Eye's command, you'll know him by his bloodied hand!
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3 Feb 2017 0:24
'And lo, Toun lamented, for he had all the symbols in existence, but had not a dictionary to know them.'
1 like
10 Jan 2017 22:46
"It is better to have loafed and lost than never to have loafed at all."
1 like
17 Aug 2016 2:49
‘You see’, property will say, ‘I am not even my own idea. I’m just a quivering, wavering, normative phantasm, without any home, without anything to call my own... I’m depressed.’
1 like

Bio



An artist's fictional conception of what Kho may look like.

"Give a man a match, and he'll be warm for a minute, but set him on fire, and he'll be warm for the rest of his life." - Quote misattributed to Kho by Kho


Kho (debuted into the RPing world c.2009 or 2010-Present), also known as Kho-Bro (Kho-Sis by those who claim to be better informed about Kho's 'bits'), Theia, King Hong of Orliand, Khobihatun, Kho the Verbose Bastard (or alternatively, the Glorious Bastard), and Sand Queen is an RPGuildian Roleplayer (RPer) and Game Moderator (GM) who is often regarded as the founder of the small-time, but increasingly successful, deity roleplay Divinus, along with long-time chaos-bringer Rtron, and professional anarcho-(rule) abolitionist Cyclone. Ownership of the rights to the RP was subject to a relatively minor dispute in the Guildian High Court in mid-2015 when the original GM sued Kho for copyright infringement. The case eventually came to a close when Kho and the founder settled outside of court for an undisclosed amount.

Although highly esteemed by members of the Divinus community, Kho is relatively unknown beyond those circles, having failed to establish a successful network of active RPers across the Guild. Kho has expressed hope that Divinus' success will soon establish him/her/it as a GM of some standing among the lower echelons of the 'sewer-dwellers' (a derogative term used to refer to the thousands of GMs attempting to rise in the brutally competitive world of Guildian GMing).

Biography
Early Years:
Very little is known about Kho's early years, though s/he has often suggested that s/he was born in a now insolvent forum, wherefrom s/he immigrated after the administration's breaches of basic human rights caused an inter-world wide webian crisis involving invasions and destruction.

S/He was born to a relatively well-off family, who are suspected to have perished with the destruction of his/her former home. S/He received his/her early education in RPing there, though s/he claims that s/he only learnt of 'true RPing' when s/he arrived in the OldGuild. S/He has expressed sadness at the violent coup which deposed the OldGuild, but is optimistic that never again will such a terrible GuildFall occur.


Roleplaying History
Kho is known to have joined a large number of RPs over time, though imperfect record keeping, destruction of archives and other catastrophes mean that a complete list is forever lost to time. Kho's personal secretary has recently published a list of all RPs Kho is known to have been in.

    In no Particular Order

  • 5-10 RPs whose names are lost due to the World Wide Webian Crisis
  • Raining Seconds - Each character represented one of the twelve Zodiacs in a post-apocalyptic world. They had various powers. Kho is believed to have played Leo, whose powers were shape-shifting. It is suggested, in the broken and fragmented records that remain, that Leo managed to fly into a floating city, move around as an ant, before kidnapping a high-level officer and pretending to be him for a while. The lack of anything else suggests that the RP died shortly thereafter. [a pre-Guildfall RP]
  • Legend of the Dragon Lords - Kho is said to have created an archer-type character. RP appears to have undergone a rebooting process shortly after Kho's joining. [a pre-Guildfall RP]
  • Reboot: Legend of the Dragon Lords - Kho once more took up Felix the Archer, though the RP does not seem to have survived far longer than an opening post by each player. [a pre-Guildfall RP]
  • Whitewall Chronicles - Little is known about the content of this RP or about what happened. [a pre-Guildfall RP]
  • Spell and Steel - Little is known about the content of this RP or about what happened. [a pre-Guildfall RP]
  • Divided: Migah v Wigah - An RP set in an isolated area where two tribes, inspired by those of Native American culture, are engaged in a perpetual feud. The records state that Kho played as Anevay Angeni (meaning: Superior Spirit, aka Old Dream Eyes) who was the leader of the Migah tribe. [a pre-Guildfall RP]
  • Lies, Blood, War! - Little is known about the content of this RP or about what happened in it. [a pre-Guildfall RP]
  • Elba - Little is known about the content of this RP or about what happened in it. [a pre-Guildfall RP]
  • Mastery: The Fate of Aea - Little is known about the content of this RP or about what happened in it. [a pre-Guildfall RP]
  • Bleach: The Lament of Power - Part of a long-running series of Bleach RPs by Yoshua and Ganryuu which Kho claims to have been a part of from the earliest years. [a pre-Guildfall RP]
  • Bleach: Tears of Heaven - Part of a long-running series of Bleach RPs by Yoshua and Ganryuu which Kho claims to have been a part of from the earliest years. [a pre-Guildfall RP]
  • The Great Nations - A very successful RP which was brought to an early death by Guidlfall. Kho appears to have first come up with 'the Eskandars' in this RP. The name, and the ideas, would stick with him/her in many future RPs. The GM of this RP was non-existent, and it was kept going purely on the will and dedication of the players - a true anarcho-syndicalist utopia. [a pre-Guildfall RP]
  • Divinus Mk.OldGuild - The original Divinus. It came to an end due to GM inactivity.
  • New Dawn of Kanorth - Kho appears to have, for a considerable period of time, dedicated all his time to this RP, playing as one Horath Evren Al'Montsar. Al'Homam bin Nimr al'Wahshey also made his debut in this RP. Needless to say, Kho enjoyed it until it died. [a pre-Guildfall RP]
  • Kingdom of Syrenos - Each player took up the role of a regional lord - either the Southern, Northern, Eastern or Western lord - in the Kingdom of Syrenos. Kho appears to have adapted the Eskandars for this RP. [a pre-Guildfall RP]
  • Legacy of Jarmoth: Adria - Kho's first moderately successful RP as GM. Kho has withheld all information regarding it. [a pre-Guildfall RP]
  • World in Revolution 1900 - GMed by Dutchbag. Kho played as Afghanistan in this historical RP. Kho's great love and admiration for Afghan history and culture appears to have had its inception with this RP. [a pre and post-Guildfall RP]
  • Able Archer 1983 - An RP based on the tensions caused by Able Archer 83. Did not survive too long however. [a post-Guildfall RP]
  • Golden Age of Piracy: Caribbean 1655 - Another RP GMed by Kho. It was relatively successful until Kho had to leave it. [a post-Guildfall RP]
  • Fiat Bello - Another fantasy NRP. Yet again, Kho relied on the trusty Eskandars to create an all-new nation: Mardithia. Unfortunately all the hard work never paid off as the RP very quickly disintegrated. [a post-Guildfall RP]
  • World in Revolution 1900 - GMed by Chairman Stein. A relatively short-lived attempt to bring back WiR. Again, Kho played as Afghanistan. [a post-Guildfall RP]
  • World in Revolution 1900 - 2nd GMed by Dutchbag. A relatively short-lived attempt to bring back WiR to the Guild. Kho played as Afghanistan once more. [a post-Guildfall RP]
  • World in Revolution 1861 - GMed by Outcast. A very successful WiR wherein Kho took up the burden of returning to glory the declining Ottoman Empire. Rumour has it that there was some brutal behind-the-scenes plotting and scheming as the RP churned on. In an interview, Kho is quoted to have said, 'I don't blame Outcast for running away.' The RP died shortly after Outcast's departure. He has never been seen on the Guild again. [a post-Guildfall RP]
  • Crisis in Constantinople - Each player took up a realistic Ottoman/Turkish figure and played out their interactions in the newly established Turkish Parliament. Kho played Sultanzade Mehmed Sabâhaddin and is said to have enjoyed it despite the RP not surviving beyond a few introductory posts. [a post-Guildfall RP]
  • World in Revolution 1861 Mk.II - GMed by Ab. Kho once more took up the mantle of returning to glory the Ottoman Empire. Kho only managed to establish a Union between the OE and Egypt before the RP collapsed. [a post-Guildfall RP]
  • Marches of Man: The Black Shields - Horath made a climactic return in this RP, but it swiftly died. [a post-Guildfall RP]
  • Naruto: Continuum - In a much-awaited RP by the legendary duo, Yoshua and Ganryuu, Kho returned as Daichi Saduzow - a character some speculate was in fact Kho's very first. Kho has neither confirmed nor denied these speculations. The RP, unfortunately, went under for reasons unknown. [a post-Guildfall RP]
  • Morituri te Salutan: Arkreidian Gladiators - In a little-known RP, Kho established the building blocks for the Treeminds, a race of bear-people. The RP died after too many players succumbed to the sands of the arena. [a post-Guildfall RP]
  • I, Arabicus: A story of Rome and the rise of Islam - An alternate history RP wherein Kho took up the role of Hudhayfa ibn al-Yaman, a companion of the Islamic Prophet, Muhammad, and one of many people who played a part in the rise of the early Islamic empire. This RP also succumbed to the sands - this time, those of the desert wherein Arabicus disappeared never to reappear. [a post-Guildfall RP]
  • Breaking the Chains - An RP based on the current insurgency in Bahrain. Kho and Dutchbag hope to resurrect it as a 1x1 RP in the near future. Kho's message to any semi-adoring fans is, 'stay tuned folks.' [a post-Guildfall RP]
  • Divinus: The Deity Roleplay Mk.I - Resurrecting the old RP (after gaining the original founder' permission), Kho and Rtron ran the new iteration of the deity roleplay rather successfully for a good four months. It was decided that the RP would go on hiatus for a while and be rebooted at a later point. [a post-Guildfall RP]
  • Divinus: The Deity Roleplay Mk.II - The reboot came earlier than expected and has been chugging along rather well for seven months at the time of writing. Kho, for the third time, played as the god of Time, Vowzra. In an unexpected turn of events, Vowzra, for the first time in three RPs, died. This appears to have been the first time in the Divinus franchise that an active player has wilfully killed off their deity-character. [a post-Guildfall RP]
  • The King is Dead, Long Live the King - Laxion Hossarusson, played by Kho, is a scholar. He has come to the capital of Emperiat, from the eastern Grand Duchy of Andaluja (based off nothing other than the original Eskanadra and those trusty Eskandars) to act as one of many advisors to the newly-ascended boy-king. It very quickly died, despite all Kho's attempts at resuscitation. [a post-Guildfall RP]


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Most Recent Posts

@BBeast you might find some of this stuff of interest - if you haven't come across it already

onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/webbin/b..
@TheDuncanMorgan I was deceived by their name - the Imperial Concord xP fixed it :)
@The Wyrm Damn she's scary - but I kind of like her! If Aulus and her ever happen to meet, be certain that he would very swiftly be slinking away into some very deep, dark pit somewhere.

Edit: the only thing I'd put forward as a criticism is that she comes across as exceptionally powerful - but that's backed up quite well by her detailed history and the well thought-out nature of the CS in general.
I know I know, double-post and all that - I just suddenly wanted to get it over with ^^'
CyKhollab Productions present
Another CyKhollab

starring

Aihtiraq
&
Shaqmar of the Sunlit Eyes
The Qa'id Adheem




Zanshah laughed aloud, spittle and bits of food exploding from his mouth.
'You're a rascal, Tadatunga! I never knew you had it in you!' he looked around and his laughing intensified as others laughed. Shaqmar, beside him, looked like he might weep. Zanshah shoved a bowl of kymis into his brother's hands, half of it spilling into the Qa'id Adheem's lap. 'Drink brother!'

'But you should have seen Munka. I learnt it all from him! We once snuck in with the horses during the night - it was all his idea! -, and at the time the women used to attend to their business quite close b-'
'His idea, eh? The rascal who did it won't admit it!' Zanshah laughed.
'I'll not be commenting on that! Anyway, as I say, it was quite close by where we kept the horses. We waited until just before the sun started peaking over the edge of the plains, and we snuck amongst them. See, I had planned to not make a sound! Munka, always after trouble, couldn't help himself when the lovely Huran came before us. The rascal, he leapt out and let her know of our place, and he gave chase. He thought she would flee, but by the Sky was she a spirited mare! She turned on him and beat him within an inch of his life! By God, I dared not move from my place till night fell!' the story of his cowardice in the face of a woman's fury - when he was the famed and courageous lord of men and swords - caused all those gathered to guffaw. Shaqmar groaned slightly, and his display of pain was hidden by their raucous laughter.
'But you know what, Zanshah, there's no greater rascal than you! How many decades have you seen, man?- and you want me to believe you found no lively mare on your wild ventures?' Tadatunga turned on the old man who near enough choked on kymis and spluttered an inaudible response as the others split their sides at his reaction. To Shaqmar's other side, Toqidae leant on Shaqmar as he laughed, and the Azad shook somewhat at his touch. Were he not yet somewhat in control of his sorrows and fury he would have turned on the man. But he withheld and bore - for with what ordeal after the ordeal of losing Layla would he ever have to deal? There would be no miseries after this misery. To what wise and ancient bard were the famed words attributed?

If thou wilt leave me, do not leave me last,
When other petty griefs have done their spite
But in the onset come; so shall I taste
At first the very worst of fortune's might,
And other strains of woe, which now seem woe,
Compared with loss of thee will not seem so.[2]


The feast dragged on, the bowl hung limp and half full in his hand, the food before him cold and untouched. They laughed around him, but no laugh shattered his face. And there was much joy, but no joy cracked his heart. And even as he sat there, and even as the coolness of night rushed through, he felt as though his chest was aflame and the heat was almost unbearable. He looked around deliriously from one laughing demon to his left to another on his right. Their voices were as burning bolts of pure sound striking at his ears and the sight of them scorched his eyes. The bowl dropped from his hand and he rose to his feet in a daze.
'Shaqmar? Where are you going?' came Zanshah's voice. Shaqmar did not respond. He stepped forward - meat was trampled beneath his foot - to cries from all those present. Semi-blind to their cries and deaf to their presence, he walked towards the darkness of the large roundtent's exit and all fell away before his crazed departure. He emerged stumbling and walked around in a stupor for some time before someone caught him by the arm and pulled him away. He put up some small resistance but was in no state of mind to put up any concerted effort. The unknown figure pulled him into his roundtent. He did not so much as look at whoever it was, instead dropping onto the furs face first and falling unconscious there.

His sleep brought him visions of her. There her smiling visage and there her velvet touch and there her coal-black eyes and there her face of light. And there the plains and there the caravan. And there her cruelly tied hands, and there her parched lips and whipped skin. And there her tears, and the sorrow, and there the untold pain. And there she is, in the tent, tied down. And there the foreign hand, and there- Shaqmar roared himself from his stupor and found his arms pushing against the furs so violently that his body leapt from the ground. He fell back on his side painfully, but quickly rose to his feet, holding his left shoulder in pain. It was light outside.

He stepped blindly towards the roundtent's entrance but found his feet caught by an unseen obstruction. She yelped as he fell over her and rolled against his hurt shoulder. She muttered inaudibly in pain and at having been woken so unceremoniously. He rolled away from her and rose to his knees before her as she sat up.
'What are you doing here?' he croaked brusquely. She rubbed sleep from her eyes and tried to focus on him, 'did I not say that I don't need your assistance?'
'Shaqmar, yesterday you-' she stopped suddenly and bit her lip. His face was cold and he clearly had no intention of listening to what she had to say, 'I...' she cast her gaze down. 'Sorry.'
Shaqmar frowned slightly and, without a word, got back to his feet and left.

Surayka kept her eyes on the ground and did not look up as he left. Only when he disappeared beyond did she look up. He had said it before, she should not clip her wings for him. But she had severed them long ago and was now helpless and flightless. She had thought he - whose love had no mercy on him! - would pity her and have mercy. But it was not so. Indeed, the one who suffered most now inflicted the most suffering and agony. He was Layla's victim, and she the victim of that victim.

Outside, a small party had gathered and Layl had been brought forth for Shaqmar. Mounting the godly steed, Shaqmar looked to the men coldly and spoke.
'I want every slaving caravan stopped and searched. Anyone who resists is to be slaughtered immediately. Find her, or die trying.' One of the riders nodded.
'Don't worry my Qa'id, we'll find Layla and restore our besmirched honour!' Shaqmar looked down and trembled slightly at the mention of her name.
'You,' he said gesturing to the man, 'Sagiki, right?' The man nodded, surprised that Shaqmar remembered his name. 'If you speak her name before me again then make it your life's mission to forever disappear from my sight, do you understand?' Sagiki looked visibly taken aback by this.
'Uh- yes, my Qa'id.' As he finished speaking, Qaseer came up beside Shaqmar.
'Go easy on the boy, Shaqmar - he looks like he's about to wet himself!' Shaqmar harrumphed and pressed his knees into Layl's sides. The stallion took a few steps and cantered off out of the encampment, closely followed by Qaseer and the others. Sagiki, still looking slightly stung and disturbed, lagged somewhat behind the others.

For days they stopped various caravans and questioned them regarding any slaves they had bought from the Ma'Erkoz. But it appeared that the last slaves sold by the Ma'Erkoz were many weeks ahead. Shaqmar and his men pressed on until they reached the fringe of former Ma'Erkoz territories.
'My Qa'id, this is the territory of the Sixteen Tribes - they are wild people and extremely hostile. Farther north are the Tribes of Jagad, and they are well-known slavers. Beyond them, Rukbany ends and there begins endless flatland. Many wild tribes dwell there, from what we know,' it was Kanga who spoke, a well-known tracker. No one had travelled across Rukbany like he had, and none knew its green hills and plains better than him.



'And what path do slavers generally take from here? Do you know?'
'No my Qa'id, they could have taken any route. Though wild, the Sixteen Tribes are known to buy slaves. And the Tribes of Jagad also make use of them. To the farthest east are the Yellow Horde and they, like us, do not buy slaves - though they do sell them,' came Kanga's response. The other men in the party seemed uncomfortable with the idea of travelling into the lands of unknown tribes and Shaqmar knew that it was unlikely that they could follow the trail from here.
'Very well. Everyone else can return to the camp. Kanga, you stay with me. We're pressing on.' This was met by protestations from Qaseer.
'Shaqmar - I'm not going back without you. We have travelled for weeks and there is no sign of her anywhere. Going any further is useless. These slavers travel into the unknown depths of hell itself, finding Layla now is close to impossible.' Shaqmar turned on Qaseer angrily, 'come now, let us head home. Surayka waits for you and one hundred other women, I'm sure we can find one tha-'
'Qaseer!' Shaqmar roared, 'you dare suggest this!?' Qaseer rolled his eyes.
'It's done, cousin. We've searched and done our utmost - but it is clear that she's gone. Had the Eternal Sky willed you to be reunited, it would have happened by now.'
'Qaseer! I will it. And my will shall be done!' And so saying, he turned Layl away and spurred him onward. But before the stallion could charge forth, Qaseer caught Shaqmar by the arm and pulled him clean off the horse.
'You're not going anywhere, cousin. Tie him up and lets head back.'
'Qaseer!- you dare defy me? I will have your heart for this!' But Qaseer ignored him and, struggle though Shaqmar did, he could not overwhelm the four men who swiftly tied his hands and set him back on Layl's back. With that done, they turned away and headed back to the main encampment.

For long, Shaqmar was furious and refused to see anybody. He roared at all who entered his roundtent, and not even Surayka - especially not Surayka - could calm him. At times he stepped out of the tent and demanded Qaseer's heart for the affront, but his command was not carried out. As his body ate itself and he weakened, he eventually stopped moving around or shouting, preferring to merely throw himself anywhere in the roundtent and hang between sleep and death. When he did sleep, he saw her and all was bliss. She would call to him and they would run together through fields and over hills - and her laugh would ring in his ears and her fragrance would fill his soul with peace. And he would awaken to the nightmare of her absence and the sharpened bitterness of grief and misery after feeling - for the slightest second - that all was well and she was there. His heart wept whenever he awoke to find that she was in reality gone - if hearts had claws, his heart would have clawed at itself from the pain. So weak was he that he could not resist those who came in and gave him water to drink and warm soups. He would have much preferred to die of starvation and thirst than to live a second longer knowing that he had so dismally failed her. Why!- death was the final relief.

But he did not die. Cruel life clutched him to her hollow, decaying breast, and the chariots and horses of dearest death were incapable before her censorious gaze and unrelenting claws. Seeing that she refused to release him, he found no point in living if he did not live to find his Layla. And so, one night - when the six moons were blind and darkness swallowed the plains like misery consumed his aching heart - he stole from his roundtent and made his way slowly out of the camp. When he felt that he was being followed he stopped abruptly and turned. At first, he could not see who it was, but eventually there emerged from the darkness something darker. The darkness in its eyes drew him in and he found his hands raised to stroke Layl's head, and he brought his forehead to the beast's snout. And for some time, his aching heart calmed and he found in the stallion's presence some peace. Then he raised his head and frowned - no! Not even a god would make him forget! Not even Layl himself would be permitted to soothe his burning heart.
'Who let you loose? How did you get here?' he asked, looking around. In the darkness, he spotted another movement, and near Layl's haunches emerged Surayka. She did not look Shaqmar in the eye but placed a hand on Layl's back instead. The stallion whinnied at her touch. For some time there was silence, which she broke at last.
'I expected that you would eventually leave,' she said. He made no response. 'I...don't think it's right for anyone to stop you now.'
'It was never right at all,' Shaqmar said coldly. She nodded.
'No, it was never right,' she looked up at last and their eyes met, 'I only hope that you find her, and I hope she returns our Qa'id Adheem to us.' Shaqmar nodded.
'And I hope you too are found. It is not good to be lost so long.' Surayka pouted slightly at his words but made no response. The man then turned away and continued walking, and his trusty steed followed closely after him.

***


The great open plains spread out before him as he walked. They enveloped him so that before long the encampment had been swallowed by rolling hills and the far horizon. And in due time he commanded Layl to go and leave him be. And he found a stick and beat him away with it whenever he came close by. For days Shaqmar would beat him away, and for days he would return. And for weeks Shaqmar would strike him and shout at him, and for weeks loyal Layl returned. And then, he did not.



Like kymis thrown by God's own hands are we
Flung with foresight penetratingly true,
I landed here, but the winds carried you
Beyond the rolling hills and golden sea.

I recall Layla and our bygone life
And days when we feared not an end to joy
And nights she lay beside me and was coy,
Those blissful years when she was yet my wife:-

When suddenly my flame became exposed
And its light burst forth, hiding every star,
So the shaman said: "I espied afar
"A planet which in the dark night was posed

"To me as though only its light was there."
So I said: "Nay! But it is Layla's light
"Come from a heart's fire, burning hot and white:
"It's home the sky, it shall glow there and glare."

Oh Layla, how many important things
Have I visited you with, in the night,
Only for them, forgotten, to take flight
Swift fleeing at peace that sight of you brings!

And since her going, when people gather,
I have sat with them till I burnt with heat
And, with a dismal cry, sprung from my seat
To go – why, curse them all! – and look for her.

My friends, if you do not yet weep for me
I shall find more faithful friends who, if I
Should shed my tears, they shed them too and cry
Who pray for me and with high heaven plea,

For God may yet unite the two exiles
After they believe the greatest belief
That there will be no union or relief
And no crossing the distances and miles.

May God curse all those wise ones who profess
That they found the passing of time to be
The greatest cure for love and misery
And reprimand me for perceived excess.

And neither great power and plunder nor
Destitution has caused me to forget
My Layla, and no repentance has met
With triumph over her whom I adore.

And no other woman with hair and eyes
Or with a subtle touch has stolen in
To my walled heart to breach within and win
Or find in me weakness or compromise.

God, make this devotion that is between
Her and me blind, neither for me nor for
Her: for the guide-star does not rise and soar
And morn does not come except that the scene

Forces remembrance of her onto me.
And I walk not a mile or step nearby-
And sun does not rise up to kiss the Sky-
Except that I see her in memory,

And she is not mentioned remotely by
A passerby except that the tears wet
My clothes and I wish that we had not met
And banish them I with an outraged cry.

I swear by God I love her and am true
Though from her heart she’s cruelly banished me,
Denizen of my heart, do you not see
This pain and agony that I go through?

I see me when in prayer turning to her,
And 'tis not out of worship, but great love
(Of which complain the lovebird and the dove)
That caused the hardest healer’s heart to stir.

I count the nights, night after passing night
Having lived an aeon not keeping count,
And I leave camps and flee my loyal mount
To talk to me of you away from sight.

In me is despair, or am wasting-struck
So flee from me else you get what's in me
And tell all of the sickness that's in me
They too can flee if they have any luck.

I love all names that are close to her name
Or are similar or take after it
Or are harmonious with her name and fit
Or come from the same wellspring that hers came.

If my eye is kohled by yours then all's well
And my countenance is forthwith restored,
For you can will to make my life adored
And you can will it be not life but hell.

You are the one due to whom no friend or
Foe sees my husk except they lament me
And they pity me so none torment me:
All bid me enter, and open their door.

Sometimes, though not tired, I rest a while
Hoping my shadow will see your likeness.
Layla is magic!- though that has redress...
There's no cure for her in a shaman’s guile.

The flame of my yearning has caught my face
So now there is on it a constant blaze,
You made me weep before Rukbany's gaze-
I'd rather weep alone in some closed space.

Oh you who laments Layla do you not
See to whom you lament her or to whom
You have come lamenting? If you seek gloom:
I have for you what shan't soon be forgot.

If lovers are severed by zealous wings,
Love will not be severed from my visage,
These are my scars and this all her damage,
For due to her I have met with dire things.

For one like Layla a man is willing
To kill himself from sorrow and be done,
Even if they say - and again! - she’s gone
To another place, yet I’m not stilling.

My friends, if they say Layla is gone then
Closen to me the pyre and torch and flame,
And if I die of waiting, ill and lame:
Send her peace from me: she is forgiven.




Day melted into night and the six moons gave way before the glowering sun - even as it eventually gave way before their fearsome nightly charge. In day he walked, commanding the sun to turn in shame and walk away, for its light was nothing before the loveliness of Layla.

Ungrateful orb of morn and dawn
Your pride and scorn indeed have grown
You shine above me there and sing
And at my skin you claw and sting
When I did all those months ago
Lie with the one who birthed your glow
She could not give birth to my son
For she was mother to the sun!


And the sun, at being dismissed and shamed before the light and grandeur of Layla, fled from the heavens and left them to the conquering moons. They rode into the sky and still, Shaqmar walked. And he raised his head and tears welled in his eyes.

You dancing riders of the night
You've risen to a mighty height
You sit upon wide heaven's throne
When it is for my love alone
How can you bear to up and sit
Where sat the queen of grace and wit
Go bury yourselves all in earth
And give up on all dance and mirth!


And the once-dancing moons halted and their song broke. Why did the moons stop dancing, fools ask? Who could dance still when Laya had been severed from her Shaqmar? Who could sing while they were apart? What creature of little soul and vacuous heart?

Who knew for how long Shaqmar walked, and who knew how long he spoke to the heavens and to the earth and to the grasses and to the stones and pebbles and birds. He shamed them all and bid them tear out their very hearts - if they had hearts, cruel things that they were! - in misery and despair.
And he did not eat and he drank only as a dead beast drank - it was not out of love for water or life, but only so that he could muster the strength to walk farther still and condemn all that lived - and did not - with his tongue and eyes. Even the walking stick he leant and relied upon was not spared - he condemned it and cursed it for carrying him when it should have collapsed and sundered from pain and misery. He decried its infidelity to the mistress of the horizons and stars - better far that it had torn itself sinew from barky sinew than last so as to grow so old and hard of heart in his grasp. (Heart! What heart! This heart of bark was harder than the boulders that held firm in the hearts of the greatest and most ancient mountains!- those revered heart-boulders venerated this hardest heart of bark!)

And as he walked, his skin yellow and waxed, and his famed shoulders and arms wilted. And even the strength of Shaqmar waned before the woes Layla had bestowed on him; the crown of grief and promised no-relief. And even his sunlit eyes darkened and dimmed. And as at last he came to his last steps and his journey's close seemed only to near, and the end was nigh; heaven itself finally permitted itself to pity the lovelorn lover. And it cracked open its breast and allowed its eyes to water and heart to bleed. And why!- all of Rukbany, from its north to its south, greedily drank up God's tears for Shaqmar and his lost Layla.
Shaqmar stumbled beneath a lone acacia tree - though he knew what it was, he little cared that he knew - and he lay there and looked to heaven's cavernous chest; those dark clouds of God's black sorrows.

Through those black clouds above there came a soft and gentle glow like a mother's caress, a light of rich gold as if the sun itself were hiding above and peering through that veil. Of course, the sun was falling low to the sky, so that light overhead was something entirely else; it was something mystical. Nonetheless, a cold rain soon came pounding down. There was a great roar of thunder, and then the sky lunged at the ground with one great spear and a bolt of lightning struck at the very tree which Shaqmar sheltered beneath. He had surrendered himself completely and prepared to give up the spirit at long last and join his beloved Layla in the Eternal Sky. And when fire broke out he, in a daze, looked up and raised his arms. 'Burn!' He muttered, the sound leaving his cracked lips and parched throat, 'acacia green, burning orange. All's as it should...be.'

Though the rains soon began to quench the fire and the fingers of flame curled and died, the blaze's glow did not fade. The flames shuddered and twisted, and from them there emerged a strange being. He drifted lazily through the air, his fiery body curling like a snake until his kind visage soon faced the weathered Shaqmar. Rains fell upon the djinni's fiery body, but rather than extinguishing it the droplets of water were only swept up into his blazing form, as were the blades of grass and loose pebbles upon the ground, and those pieces of bark loose enough to flake off the tree. They all swirled together and intermingled in one chaotic but magnificent piece of harmony: the body of Aihtiraq.

"A rider with no great horse,
a man with no tribe,
a Qa'id without his horde.

Despair has claimed all of thee
and yet I have come
bearing one gift of a skin

that I would ask you to choose."


That strange djinni took a deep breath and smiled, exuberant as ever at the prospect of offering one kindness. As he let out a contented breath, so too did the entire world seem to do, for that heavy rain stopped falling in that very instant and a golden eddy of wind descended from that stormy sky above. The Wind of Change danced playfully about Aihtiraq's body, for that wind was his cloth eager to be woven into a new tapestry, his paint longing to be brushed into a new masterpiece, his voice yearning to sing. Shaqmar looked deliriously around and as he beheld Aihtiraq a small flicker of hope was ignited within his soul. It was done. His race was run and his heart had, at last, come to a stop. Here was a divine spirit greeting him - surely it would carry him now into the great palace of the Eternal Sky. Surely it would now reunite him with his Layla. He reached for the spirit.
'Where?...' came his questioning, hopeful voice, 'where...she?'

Though however close Shaqmar's hand reached, Aihtiraq still hovered just slightly beyond his grasp. The djinni looked upon that desperate man and seemed to read his mind, for he first answered,
"Ah, Layla is like the wind
flighty, far from touch
yet of this world, not the next.

I would guide you if that is
your great burning wish
but first I must warn you, perhaps

it is best if you turn back."


Upon mention of Layla's name Shaqmar groaned and fell upon his knees before the mighty spirit, not even Aihtiraq's calming, joyous presence able to prevent the tears from welling up in his eyes, and he shouted in desperation and despair, 'speak it not! I beseech you!- speak not my tormentor's name! By God I charge you, be silent, be true. If you know where my heart's possessor lies - lead Shaqmar there or else again he - and again, and again he - falls and dies!'

His smile was unfading, unflinching even in the face of such sadness. For was all sadness not temporary when Aihtiraq stood before one and offered them mercy? He witnessed Shaqmar's tears and laughed heartily, but his was no cruel guffaw. More a becalming one.
"By this one's own name you bid
me twice, so be it!
Summon strength anew, follow

the huntsman's shining arrow
to the end of earth
and there you will find your heart.

Now I bid thee, beware hooves!"


With that, the noble spirit seemed to fade away from the world itself and simply vanish in a cloud of golden mist. The rains fell down once more, but the soft glow of Aihtiraq's golden wind remained to illuminate the sky yet. Shaqmar watched as the spirit departed and he felt health and strength return to him as the rain fell and the golden wind danced all around until it eventually disappeared completely. He lifted himself up, leaning against the acacia and his stick, and then raised a hand into the air to touch the place where the spirit had been.

She came to me; I was alone and cold
She poured forth all her heat; a spirit made of gold
For long I called and gave up on response
How hopeless man does wax if despair but strike once!
How quick is bliss, how quick is joy forgot
How quick within the soul the well of grief does clot
Forgive the weakness of my faith in you
For you have been to all our promises most true
You came to me, you gave me one command
By God I shan't e'er stop till I before you stand!


Without waiting a second longer, Shaqmar took his first uncertain steps. And even in the gloom of a dark and stormy night, that soft glow from above offered enough light for Shaqmar's travel. And so it was that he set off with newfound - if yet vulnerable - vigour, and with every ounce of strength that returned to his arms and legs, the rain seemed to likewise abate. And though he found joy and comfort in the hammering of heaven upon him, it eventually died to but the faintest drizzle, and in that damp, he eventually encountered footprints in the muddy earth. After such heavy rain, any old tracks would have been washed away. So these were fresh, and as they wound through bushes and over ridges, they followed the game trails just as a huntsman's steps should. If ever his heart had cause for doubt, Shaqmar needed only to look up for the reassuring warm glow left by her noble spirit, for even now she ushered him onward and seemed to stir his heart from afar.

Bending down before the fresh tracks, he took a piece of earth and clenched it in his fist, and he buried his hand deep and felt the moist ground. If Layla were to be found beneath the very earth, he would willingly sink himself within. He would swim through the very earth as birds soared in the sky or fish swam in the rivers and streams. If her home was earth, then that too was his home, and if the skies were her abode, then there two would he abide, if she had made out of the waters of the earth her dwelling place, then there would he dwell. And if she lived in the burning fires of his heart's imperishable love, then he knew well where he would live.

You footprints that have seen where my love lives
Send my greetings to one who if
High heaven ceases giving she still gives
And should the mount wane, or the cliff,
She lifts their burdens and their sin forgives

She is a god, or something of the kind,
Or blessed, or is herself divine
Or something close thereto or thus aligned
Who, of all men's souls, has chos'n mine
To find rest with and become intertwined!


For two days did the trail lead on, for this huntsman was surely spry and never stopped long to rest. Even though the man perhaps had only a half day's lead on Shaqmar, without Layl that was a great lead indeed. Nonetheless, as the Rukban tracked this mysterious hunter he saw encouraging signs: a few broken arrows left behind, the remains of what quarry the hunter chanced upon, and at one point the still-warm ashes of a fire. Eventually, the gap between the two closed and there the hunter was: lain down in a small creek as if finally stopping to bathe and rest in the cool waters. But alas, his sleep was eternal; an arrow in his back and another in his side had seen to that.


Still, his rest was peaceful.


About the area were the tracks of several men and their horses. Near the river were strewn the huntsman's belongings, or at least what was let after his killers had ransacked them: there was a broken arrow, a small string - a necklace of some kind - which had nothing but a worthless stone on it. And, of course, his game bag was gone. Of course, the bandits would likely be feasting on this poor soul's hard earned meat, but alas, even in death he could do his duty to Shaqmar. Though his bow and quiver be gone, the one broken arrow pointed to a land beyond the river.
Shaqmar bent down and picked up the worthless necklace and stroked the stone attached to it. What story, he wondered, was behind this. Was it a token, perhaps? Maybe he too had a Layla whose heart even now burned for him and waited on his return.
'You burn in her heart - poor soul! Miserable wretch! Here, here's my face. Let your face - let your arms, let your eyes - let your treacherous heart which greeted death before she permitted it! Let them burn.' And so saying, Shaqmar pulled him from his restful, watery grave and set about lighting a few twigs. And when the man was dry, he lay him on a bed of such twigs and set him alight. 'By the undying flames of her heart! Here I bring them forth into the world of eyes and sight! Watch how we burn! Oh, how beautiful we burn! Oh! For a wilted rose!' Leaving the dead lover behind and to his fate, Shaqmar needed only to heed her noble spirit's command and journey far to the horizon in the direction the arrow had pointed. When night at last fell, the stars themselves seemed to rearrange themselves. Cast in eternal light above, the likeness of that hunter, his bow, and his arrow were all there. And they pointed out the way onwards! 'Ah! Treacherous hunter! You die and leave your love behind - and point the way to mine! I should have you whipped! I should flay you with her tears- and mine!'

And by the guidance of the treacherous celestial lover, Shaqmar walked into the light of the morning sun. And he stopped and watched it rise, and it was as though he could reach out and touch it. He spread his arms wide and stared direct into its yet-bearable rays. And even as he welcomed it, there sounded across the foreign land the thundering of hooves. A dazed and serene smile on his face, he turned around. And for a while he could not see, for his eyes were blinded by the harrowing heart of morning's orb. And as his eyes came to, he saw through the haze the shadow of riders bearing down on him. He raised his walking stick and shouted indecipherably in greeting. And they surrounded him and he heard laughter, and even though he could not see them, he heard their laughter and he smelled on them the scent of death - and a lover's blood.
'We weren't so lucky yesterday with that boy, but we might just get this one alive - look at him, he's so thin and weak we don't even need to fight him!' he heard one laugh, 'the wars tearing this region always make for lucrative profits in our line of work! Get him!' and he could now see them. Six of them on horses, their faces covered - but he did not need to see their faces to know the hands that had taken his Layla.
'You took a wilted rose - is there profit in that? I am a burning man - can you not see my eyes? Do you dare touch me? Come here, these are my scorching hands. Let the fires of my soul burn you!' the riders hesitated and looked to their leader.
'Zalmi, I think the man is mad,' one of them said.
'I am not mad! He is not mad who burns - but for the likes of her, a man should well go mad! After what you did, a man is right to!' Zalmi grunted something and three men descended from their horses and circled around Shaqmar, rope in their hands. 'You think this burning man does not yet have the sun in his eyes? You think these love-ravished bones cannot yet gore you all? You think I cannot feast on your hearts? Do you stand between me and the sun of souls, the singular moon of my compounded darkness? Come feast on blood! Come feast on flames!' And even as Shaqmar raved, there came hammering hooves and the measured thundering of divine steeds. The slavers all turned, as though they were one, and Shaqmar looked with them. There he was - not divine steeds or the horses of the Eternal Sky, but god made manifest.



A god bursts forth


Layl thundered towards them, the earth seemingly shattering wherever a mighty hoof fell. One of them was shouting - some were in clear panic. 'Kill it!' Shaqmar heard, 'kill it!' But he laughed and spread his arms wide.
'Would you kill god!?' he roared. And Layl leapt and soared above the empty backs of their horses, and landed powerfully before Shaqmar who embraced his loyal steed even as it continued onward without so much as a pause. He felt himself swing around the stallion's neck and onto its back. And the horizons seemed to struggle in outpacing them.

***


She did not see the riders. The commotion and worry that ran through the caravan passed her by. She hardly realised that she had stopped walking - just as the pain of her tightly tied wrists had melted away, and just as her sore and aching legs no longer registered with her mind. It was with a dull stupor that she watched the riders descend on the caravan with a fury. Screams and shouts, blood. She felt ill. Her hands began to shake uncontrollably and she felt a shiver run through her abdomen and her stomach turned sickeningly. She almost dropped to the ground, but the fact that she was tied to the slaves before and behind her kept her upright. She could not tell how long the fighting took - all sense of time was subsumed by a delirious nausea and a sudden outbreak of sweating. The world blurred and she was - for who knows how long - unconscious of and blind to all that happened around her.

She did feel it, however, when her hands were suddenly freed and somebody gripped her by the shoulders to keep her aright. Taking a shallow breath, she looked up and tried to focus on who was gripping her - all the while trying with all her non-existent strength to pull away. It was an unconscious, instinctive revulsion at being touched.
'...-ayl-...-ear me...-ar,' someone was saying. It was familiar in a distant, surreal kind of way. Like being on the brink of sleep while someone is speaking to you and hearing them as if from a long way, - and what is heard and seen is a fantastical thing which has no grounding in the reality. She felt something touch her lips and her lips were suddenly wet. She opened her mouth to cry out in protest, but the wetness spread everywhere, invading her mouth and flooding down her throat. She choked and it was all suddenly everywhere - spluttering from her mouth. Her shallow breaths came wet. Everything darkened and she fell into a disturbed, humid, insensible state.

When she next came to, she actually managed to awaken. And though she still felt desperately weak - and befuddled and dazed - she managed to raise her head and take her surroundings in despite fuzzy vision. She was tied tightly in place. From the rhythmic rocking beneath her, she surmised that she was on a horse or camel. The rocking did not help and she felt a wave of nausea run through her. She shook uncontrollably for a few seconds and weakness rushed through her body and she dropped forward very suddenly. She was tied well enough to remain in place. For one reason or another, the blackness of the creature she was on was comforting. It was easy on the eyes - she would have liked nothing more than to be placed in a very dark, cramped place - a roundtent perhaps, under many furs and blankets. She would have liked to lie there for a very long time and...disappear. After a while, the rocking started hurting her head and she lifted herself up, only for a rush of dizziness to run through her and she fell backwards very painfully. She let out a little cry of pain. Her plight seemed to get the attention of somebody riding just ahead of her, and a strong hand gripped her by the shoulder and righted her. She shuddered at the touch and impulsively shook the helping hand off.

'Layla, you have awakened,' a man's voice came, 'how do you feel? Are you in pain?' he paused for a while, perhaps expecting a response from her. It never came. 'P-perhaps I should call a Witchdoctor for you right away.'
'N-no,' she managed haltingly. For a minute or so there was silence and she was preoccupied with battling the bouts of dizziness and depletion that came at her in tidal waves. Then the voice sunk into her head and realisation dawned. Her head snapped to the side - the tide of dizziness rushed in, but she managed - and her eyes fell upon him. Her hand rose towards him and her mouth dropped in shock and her eyes watered.
'Shaq-' she managed before her frail state of mind and body gave way to the twofold blows of severe shock and debilitating weakness. A cold sweat ran through her, and the world darkened once more.



Layla

Look, there is the chieftess of the deserts and plains,
The true mistress of every Rukban heart and soul,
The splendid stars and moons are brought to her in chains
And worship at the altar of her eyes of coal.

She is extolled by the heavens and by the land
And hearts sing her praises and the winds throb and sound!
Existence bends in submission to her command
And homage is paid her afar and nigh around.


By the time Shaqmar's band of raiders returned to the main encampment, Layla had recovered a considerable amount of strength. She had been able to eat and drink after one of Shaqmar's Witchdoctors - Hakamunga - cast a few blessings upon her to change her disturbed state of mind into one of peace and harmony. It worked to the extent that her dizziness and nausea receded significantly, and she was feeling much stronger after a day or so of eating well. Though she ate far from everyone else, alone with Shaqmar, she would not accept food from his hand whenever he brought it to her lips. She would shudder and impulsively withdraw - the fear in her eyes and sudden hostility made him realise, after the third or fourth time, that she was not going to be accepting anything from him. When he thought on why she was doing this, he came to the conclusion that she was probably angry with him for not protecting her and the others well enough. He had allowed her to fall into enemy hands and to be sold into slavery. She had a right to be angry.

'Layla,' he said, 'I...I am sorry. I did not protect you as well as I should have. Please, forgive me. It shall never happen again.' She paused as she reached for the food in their shared bowl and looked at him distractedly for a few seconds. She withdrew her hand slowly and lost focus on him completely as she thought deeply - he thought. Without a word, she rose and walked away. He looked up in surprise and made to rise after her, but she halted and turned on him somewhat angrily.
'No, you stay,' she said with a low, assertive tone. He hesitated for a few seconds before crumpling back to the ground, a look of clear hurt on his face. A flash of guilt and remorse flashed in her eyes, but she turned away and rushed off quickly. They did not talk after that, and Shaqmar avoided meeting her gaze whenever they walked or rode together.

As they rode into camp, she very suddenly brought Layl - who she was riding - to a halt. Shaqmar almost did not notice, but he impulsively looked behind him to find that she had stopped and was frozen before Firasi's moaning corpse. Her hands were shaking violently and a look of unimaginable fury and hatred was upon her face. She swiftly dismounted and, drawing a long dagger from Layl's saddle, rushed towards the corpse. With a harrowing shriek, she dug the blade into the living corpse again and again. It had already begun rotting, and the decaying flesh tore easily and maggots and worms burst out. It did not stop her, and she continued savaging it for a long while. Shaqmar watched in taut silence, clenching his jaw and holding back his tears. When at last she had exhausted herself and he thought her done, Shaqmar edged his mare forward slowly.
'Layla, come now, let us get you to-'
'Stay away!' she yelled, glaring at him with a fury and hostility he had rarely seen even in the eyes of his most fervid foes. It was more powerful than any physical blow anyone of them had ever or could ever deliver. It took the air out of him and shrivelled his heart. It burst his soul and broke his spirit. His mare, sensing his clear confusion and shock, groaned and kicked at the ground in distress. Shaqmar watched in overwhelmed and startled silence as his wife turned back to the decaying, moaning corpse and began cutting away near its hips. His eyes widened and his chest became very heavy with disgust and a dreadful, dense despondence. Once done, she turned and threw the putrid appendage beneath the mare's kicking hooves and watched as it was grounded into nothingness. She watched it, and Shaqmar watched her and the agonised fury in her eyes and face, the unrestrained rage in her clenched and trembling fists, the despair and defeat in her hunched shoulders. Her clear misery fueled the despondency and loss of hope within him to the level of pure numbness. He made to dismount, but she flashed him a wild and delirious look, and so he remained numbly seated atop the still-kicking mare. After some minutes of this, Layla moved forward towards the mare's kicking forelegs, and Shaqmar quickly turned the steed away so that the distressed creature would not cause his wife any harm. She stopped where the mare had kicked the appendage into nothingness and turned the earth, and looked around. After assuring herself that it had been completely annihilated, she kicked at the ground with impassioned frenzy a few times before turning away and mounting Layl once more.

So lost and cut-off from the world were the two of them that they had not realised the large crowd that had witnessed all this. Only now as she made to enter the encampment did Layla see them all. With eyes downcast, she made her way in and all parted before her. Shaqmar, staring despondently at her back, followed quietly. Her coldness towards him and her strange actions were very troubling - he only hoped that, with time, she would settle back down and she would return to her old self. She dismounted before their great roundtent and, giving him a slightly apprehensive look, made her way inside. When, after some time, he entered after her he found that she was busying herself with rearranging their bedding. She had moved a number of furs and blankets to the other side of the roundtent and every now and then someone would walk in with a few more on her request. Once the new bedding area was to her satisfaction and she had changed from her travel attire, she pointed to the other bedding area and told Shaqmar that he was to stay on his side at all times and that under no circumstance was he to approach or touch her while she slept.

'Layla, that's unreasonable! It is absurd for a woman to demand this of her ma-'
'Shaqmar,' she interrupted reproachfully, a suspicious frown in her eyes, 'if you can't do this, then I will leave and reside elsewhere, alone.' His shoulders slumped at her words and the hurt in his eyes became evident.
'W-why are you doing this?' he whispered shakily. She was silent, and the pain in his eyes and voice clearly disarmed her somewhat for her lips began to tremble and her eyes watered. 'Tell me what's wrong,' he said, stepping forward and reaching out towards her.
'Shaqmar, no. Stay away,' she yelped, wiping the welling tears from her eyes and backing off, 'don't touch me!' he halted at her command and brought his hands down.
'B-but why?' he asked desperately. She looked away and there was silence for some time. At last, she turned and buried herself under the furs and blankets completely.
'L-Layla,' he stuttered, 'please. I missed...I miss you.' But there came no response from her. Crestfallen and broken, he turned away and left the roundtent. Beneath the blankets and the furs, Layla stifled her sobs.

Shaqmar sat himself down on the steps of his great roundtent and, as all the violent pains and tempestuous hurts whirled within his heavy heart and burdened chest, dully watched those who came and went before him. Though they had only recently emerged from a rather vicious conflict, and though they were yet in former-Ma'Erkoz territories, normalcy seemed to have returned to the tribe. But, alas, normalcy had not returned to him. Eventually, his eyes alighted upon Surayka who was walking alongside her sister, Uta, and Qaseer's sister, Yesla.

She noticed him and their eyes met for a few seconds before he quickly looked away. Eventually, noticing that the Qa'id Adheem was alone and free enough to spend his time seated indolently outside his roundtent, Toqidae - who now frequently visited - approached.

'Greetings, Shaqmar,' the Tagham Qa'id Adheem said as he approached. Shaqmar responded in kind, if unenthusiastically. 'Now that our campaign against the Ma'Erkoz is over, I'm here to discuss the matter of how to partition our newly-acquired territories.' Shaqmar raised an eyebrow at this.
'Our recently acquired territories, Qa'id Adheem? This was an Azad war. Your contribution is no doubt appreciated - and you have received all the slaves and loot anyone could dream of or desire as thanks for your efforts -, but you will have no part of Ma'Erkoz territories. That shall remain for those Ma'Erkoz allies who were spared and who have become part of the greater Azad Confederation.' Toqidae looked clearly taken aback by this.
'This is in no way just or fair, Shaqmar. The Tagham have shed blood to win these territories. We have earned-'
'You have received all that you have earned, Qa'id Adheem. Desiring after anything more is pure greed and is unbecoming of a person of your station. Please, let us end this matter and not speak of it again.' Toqidae opened his mouth to respond, but a sudden look in Shaqmar's eyes persuaded him otherwise. Pressing his lips together tightly, he rose and left in a huff. Shaqmar stared after him warily, and he remembered the prophecy brought by Juras.

If the Tagham were going to betray him, he would do well to deal with them now while they were in his power, rather than later when they could direct all their power against him. He gave the thought a few seconds of consideration before dismissing it. It was not Shaqmar who turned on his ally, having promised him peace and safety and welcomed him into his encampment. Until the Tagham showed signs of betrayal he would do nothing. But he would be keeping a particularly close eye on them, and when the time came he would be ready. And his strike would be swift and decisive. Having remembered something, Tiqodae suddenly turned around and returned to Shaqmar.
'I forgot to mention. My brother, Araqai, and his wife have invited you and Layla to a meal. They will be honoured to receive you and celebrate the safety of the honoured lady with you.' Shaqmar's eyes drooped slightly and he nodded quickly.
'I will be certain to pay your brother a visit. Send our thanks to him in the meantime.'

***


'Of all the women of Rukbany, there are none so noble as I,' the woman had proclaimed, 'for I am from my father's side the daughter of great chiefs, and from my mother's side the daughter of esteemed shamans. And I am the wife of the greatest of men, and my children shall inherit all he has built. Does that not make me the greatest of the women of the earth?' Suzaeri had looked at her reflection in the water as the slave-woman brushed her hair.
'It's true, my lady,' she said, 'though...uh.'
'What? What is it? Is there anybody else?' the wife of Araqai turned around and looked at the slave-woman.
'No, my lady, it is just, well. You know, there are some who would say that the noblest of all women is none other than Layla. For she is the daughter of great chiefs also - and some say that within her is the blood of the Prophet himself! And she is married to none other than Shaqmar - who is, as you well know, now the most powerful of the Rukbans. Is it not said of him that he is the Lord of Rukbany? And did he not, for her alone, slay all of Ma'Erkoz? And did he not track down her slavers till he found them at the ends of the earth? And did he not slaughter them to a man?' Suzaeri had frowned at these words and within her heart there grew intense jealousy and hatred.
'By the Eternal Sky! I shall make this Layla, of whom you speak so highly, a servant before me!' and she had gone to her husband and had asked him to invite the Qa'id Adheem Shaqmar and his wife, Layla, to a meal. Tiqodae's brother had perked up at the suggestion.
'Why, woman! Something useful comes of you at last! I shall speak to my brother at once and he shall invite them when next he visits.' And so it had been.

When Shaqmar arrived, riding the fabled Layl, with Layla in a well-furnished, horse-drawn cart, and a guard of some fifty warriors, Araqai personally rode out to greet them and usher them towards his roundtent. The host had camped with his wives and children on a small hill with a rather pleasant view in order to receive the honoured guests. Once they reached his roundtent, Layla was helped from the cart by some women and greeted the host and hostess with a few polite words.
'It is an honour to have the Qa'id Adheem accept our humble invitation to a meal. Please, please,' Araqai gestured for them to enter his roundtent and both Shaqmar and Layla obliged him. Layla and Suzaeri went to one side of the roundtent, where food and drink were swiftly brought to them and they made polite conversation, while Shaqmar and Araqai sat to another side and food was brought to them also. As was custom, Araqai ate first and then invited his guest to join him. It was an old Rukban tradition and was a symbol of the host's goodwill - and on a more pragmatic level, it was to ensure that the food was not poisoned.
'Your glories are sung the world over, Qa'id,' Arakai declared, 'and your loyalty and love are the stuff of legend!' Shaqmar smiled a small smile and shook his head.
'The world is very large, Arakai. And what's more, it could never be done without the aid of the Tagham. We are ever grateful to you and your people,' came Shaqmar's response.

On the other side Arakai's wife smiled thinly, clearly irritated at her husband's humility before Shaqmar. 'They look like they're enjoying themselves. Men will be men - put some food in front of them and they're satisfied.' Layla nodded in respect but otherwise made no attempt to agree or disagree with the hostess. In all truth, she simply wanted this matter to be over that she could return home and lock herself away from the outside world.

In recent weeks the bulge in her stomach had become apparent and the people had started whispering. When she emerged from the roundtent - and she very rarely did - she could feel their eyes on her. She knew they whispered behind her back. She knew what they thought.

Shaqmar had been silent - but she had seen the shock and horror in his eyes when realisation dawned. And she had seen the disgust, and she had seen the guilt in his eyes and the reproach.
'Layla,' Suzaeri suddenly said, 'will you get me the bucket? It's just outside the roundtent.' Layla raised an eyebrow at this.
'Let the one in need see to her need,' she said coldly. Suzaeri raised her chin in indignation.
'I said get me the bucket!' Suzaeri insisted, louder this time. Across the tent, Shaqmar looked towards the women. Layla scowled and rose to her foot.
'What humiliation! Do you see me your slave?' she shouted. Suzaeri looked across the room, red-faced, and saw immediately the dark look on Shaqmar's face. Before Araqai could say or do anything, Shaqmar rose and looked down at him.
'So you have brought me here to humiliate my wife and dishonour me - is that it, Araqai?' Shaqmar said lowly, and, looking around, he saw a scimitar hanging from one of the roundtent's walls and swiftly drew it.
'Sh-Shaqmar, no, it's nothing of the sort!' Araqai said, scrambling to his feet as Shaqmar turned back around and kicked the platter of food away.
'Azaaad!' Shaqmar roared, and outside horses neighed and swords were drawn. Shaqmar turned on Araqai and, before he could utter even a word more, caused his head to fly from his neck. Without pause, he stalked to the other side of the roundtent and grabbed the woman by the neck, pulling her up, 'you would enslave my Layla?' he growled lowly, a madness in his eyes.
'N-n-'
'You would enslave my Layla?!' he growled again, louder this time, shaking her and squeezing at her neck. She groaned and scratched and clawed at his wrist and face, but to no avail. After a minute or so she went limp and he let her fall upon her food. Still glowering, he turned to Layla and looked into her face, reaching to caress her cheek. But his hand froze and quickly withdrew. 'Come,' he said gently, 'let us leave this cursed place.' When they emerged from the roundtent, it was to find that Shaqmar's men had completely laid waste to the place - and they left neither old nor young except that they severed the jugular vein. Not having any desire to stick around, Shaqmar helped Layla back into her cart and mounted Layl. And the Qa'id Adheem - and his wife and his guards - marched back to Azad land.

***

Epilogue


The bulge in her stomach had grown, and with it came sickness and nausea, and there came tiredness. And her emotions flared up and she could not hold back from snapping at him for even the slightest of perceived faults. For his part, Shaqmar bore it all patiently and a part of her simply wanted to draw him close and unload all her burdens and misery onto him. She knew he could take it. She knew he wanted nothing else. But she could not. Her profaned body - the disgusting, foreign, invading, unwanted thing that was growing within her - were too tainted and corrupted to so much as approach his purity. Sleeping in the same roundtent alone probably contaminated the very air he breathed. And, to top it all, she had started yet another war. Toqidae had been shocked at the brutal murder of his brother, his wives, and his children from their eldest to the youngest babe. He had not only called up the Tagham, but had called upon allies to his north - the Yellow Horde and the Sixteen Tribes. The tribe too had been shocked. And though Shaqmar was unfazed and declared that he would destroy all who thought to dishonour the Azad, she could see that the people were not as convinced. She could see they blamed her and suspected her of some evildoing - other than the evil of carrying within her womb a child that was not Shaqmar's, of course.

It did not matter much, for she did not plan to give birth to this monstrosity. Crawling to where Shaqmar lay sleeping, she huddled beside him - this once, she would allow herself one selfishness - and breathed him in. If only his purifying scent could cleanse her of what was in her. If only he could turn back the clock...

When Shaqmar awoke, he found that he was strangely at ease. There was no heaviness in his chest and there was no weight at the back of his mind. He was wet. Turning his head, he found that Layla was beside him, huddled close. Her fragrance wafted to him clothed in the rustic scent of blood. And she was cold. Moaning slightly - God! - he moved his hands across her bloodstained body until he had her face in his bloodied hands. He did not say anything, but an involuntary, guttural groan left his tightly sealed mouth. Pressing his face into hers, he searched her body blindly until he came to her hand and the hilt of the dagger that she had buried deep into her chest. Taking her clenched hand, he slipped the dagger from her slowly and turned it - still in her hand - to his own chest. And he pressed himself towards her.
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