Author’s note: This short story is part of my quest to craft excellent fantasy fiction inspired by late antiquity Arabia. I think that writing and completing a story is a great way to improve my skills and find myself as a writer. Privately, I am exploring numerous other story concepts as well as an epic fantasy. They all take place in a world similar to the one explored in the story below. You can learn more by joining my newsletter.
While this is only a draft, I think that it’s good enough to delight readers. I hope you enjoy it!
Honor of a Nomad Mage
By Amira Loutfi
Night had fallen on a nomadic encampment. Small fires crackled all throughout its nexus of make-shift shelters, and the wind sighed softly with the dust of nearby dunes. In one small family tent, Zeki and his wife, Karama, finished a meal of salted sun-dried lamb. She was good-humored, while Zeki hid his nervousness.
“It’s been three months since Dafya stole our camels,” Zeki told her. He spoke softly, even though the matter was becoming urgent. “I might have to straighten him out myself.” Nomadic communities like theirs placed great weight on reputation. If word spread that their family did not have strong men to fight for them, then that would leave them vulnerable to more ill treatment in the future. There were opportunistic scoundrels in every tribe who were always seeking low-status families for unfair business deals or illicit relationships with their women. If a man wasn’t taking responsibility for his own family, it was nobody’s business to step in. The pressure was starting to build in the pit of Zeki’s stomach.
“And what about your guarantor?” Karama asked, “Isn’t nobleman Murubil supposed to step between you two? You said he was going to handle it.”
“He told me he would handle it.” Zeki said, “But he’s done nothing within the past month.”
“Our own Murubil!” Karama cried, “And what does he think — does he want you to go strangle Dafya yourself?” Zeki flinched at that, but Karama did not seem to notice. The color drained from her face, and her eyes widened as though she were struck by her own imagination, “Oh Laat! And now you will have to do as a man always does — and kill them both! But how can you?” She spoke with fear and alarm, as if she truly believed her gentle-mannered husband to be on the brink of such actions. “They and their clansmen will team up against you and you will die a miserable, violent death!”
Zeki was winded by her words. He had no desire to escalate the conflict with either Murubil or Dafya. He was speechless as Karama continued wailing in this manner. Then he was able to compose himself.
“Love,” he said evenly.
“We have to run!” Karama said, “Are we going to–“
“Love,” he said more firmly, “it hasn’t gotten to that point. And besides, we also have clansmen.” He cupped her face in his hands, holding her steady. He stared into her eyes with a look he hoped was strong and comforting. “For now, the only duty of mine is to deliver a blackening to Murubil. That is the only thing that we need to think about.”
Zeki felt her relax in his arms, although her fears were not completely unfounded. According to custom, Murubil’s duty was to prevent Zeki from seeking violent retribution from Dafya.
“I will handle it by law. One step at a time,” Zeki said, “And the first step is to blacken Murubil for negligence. That’s all.” Karama breathed deeply and smiled. Zeki smiled back. He loved Karama and wanted her to know she was safe.
“So how will you do it?” Karama said, “Are you going to use your magic tomorrow?”
“Ah, the magic?” Zeki shook his head impulsively, “No. Tomorrow is too soon. The men say that a guarantor gets a month to act on a case. Tomorrow will be exactly 29 days. We ought to make it 30. I don’t want anyone saying that he would’ve acted if he’d had only one more day.” The truth was that Zeki was still desperately hoping that Murubil would apologize and fulfill his guarantor duties without any pressure at all.
“So you’ll use your magic the day after tomorrow.”
“I’ll use black flags.” he said, “my cousin said he saw black fabric in town.”
Using black flags was common and practical. If the sun rose over Murubil’s tent and it was covered in black flags, then everyone would know that he had done something shameful. It would be punishment enough. And if he dared take them down before custom dictated, the clan might give him a nasty nickname like Murubil the Liar. Such a thing had happened before.
“Zeki,” Karama said, smiling. She took his hand and placed it on her stomach. It had started to swell only recently. “You’re a strong man. I’m happy to bear your children.”
Internally, Zeki was all knots. He did not expect violence to erupt from the theft, but he hated conflict of all kinds. Even the thought of shaming Murubil made his stomach flop. Punishing another man brought him no pleasure at all. But he was happy to make Karama feel safe, pleased that she saw strength in him. What kind of ass would I have to be to disappoint the one person who views me as strong?
The next day Zeki visited the market nearby. There was no black fabric for sale. And neither had Murubil shown up to apologize to him or Karama.
“Tomorrow night,” Karama said when he arrived home empty-handed, “there will be magic!”
“Yes,” Zeki said. But then he went quiet. The other customary symbols of shame were not available — no black dogs or black rocks around. He felt cornered. Zeki had shied away from using his magic in front of others, ever since a difficult experience that occurred when he was a boy. He tried to sound strong. “Tomorrow night I’ll blacken his tent with magic.”
Karama melted into his arms, grinning at him. She knew he liked to keep his magic private, but never had asked him why. Now that circumstance demanded he use it publicly, she was thrilled.
“You’re really going to use your magic?” she said.
He nodded. His magic was weaker the more nervous he was. Crowds made him anxious, but nothing scared him more than conflict. It was a bad combination, but Zeki knew that there was no other way now. He had to blacken Murubil the following night or else risk the status of his family within the clan.
“And it’s completely justified!” Karama had always loved his magic, ever since their first night together. Zeki had surprised her with a bundle of flowers in her face, blooming with desert rose, jasmine, and marigold. The bundle was already fragrant, but then he asked it to release itself, and it slowly transformed into a cloud of floral vapor. They shared their first kisses and caresses through this magical mist. Then she had asked him to change her hair color. Her hair was dark, curly, and full of body. He placed his hands on the sides of her head, touching as many strands as he could. He asked the unruly mane to release its hold on its color. A shiny pale magenta then swirled up and down her curls like a smoke released from under his hands.
Before then, Karama hadn’t even known Zeki was a mage.
That night Zeki tossed and turned on their reed mats. Karama fell asleep easily, but he soon felt a powerful impulse to sit up. There was too much miserable energy flowing through him to remain beside someone so peaceful.
What if I can’t turn his tent black tomorrow? Zeki asked himself, what if I’m too nervous? If I can’t do it I’ll look like a weak idiot in front of everyone. It had been over a decade since he practiced magic in front of anyone other than Karama, but the thought of a crowd the next night filled him with the old sick feeling of humiliation.
Maybe Murubil will still come visit me, he thought, apologizing for this delay. Maybe he’ll beg for me to give him more time. After considering this, Zeki realized that it couldn’t happen. Both Dafya and Murubil already view me as weak. That is probably the reason they both decided to violate my rights. Blackening him tomorrow is the only way to restore balance. But if my magic doesn’t work, I‘m going to look even more weak and stupid. His magic was always powerful when he was alone or with Karama. But in front of others, it was often little more than a puff of dust. How can I guarantee that the magic will work when I need it to?
Finally a plan came to him. Perhaps I can just imagine that I am alone with Karama and pretend that no one else is there. And he tried to imagine the two of them standing alone in front of Murubil’s tent.
On the thirtieth day, Murubil did not visit nor send any messages to their tent. Zeki was not surprised. As the sun set, he marched angrily through the campsite, between fabric homes and tent poles, towards Murubil’s tent. His neighbors were busy stoking fires, but as soon as he saw the corner of Murubil’s tent, his uncle appeared in front of him.
“Zeki! What are you doing?” the man said, placing his hands on Zeki’s shoulders. “I don’t like the look on your face. You look angry.”
“I am angry, uncle.” Zeki said, “I am blackening Murubil’s tent.”
“Blackening! Ah, I see — I remember! Murubil was your guarantor against Dafya. The man who stole your camels?”
“But did you give him 29 days to rectify?”
“I gave him thirty days.” Zeki said grimly. “and he’s done nothing for the case.”
“You’re a patient man,” his uncle said. “If it were me, I would’ve broken his nose in a week.” He looked Zeki over in the swiftly dimming light. Zeki was not holding anything typically associated with shame, “What will you blacken him with?”
“Atomization,” he said.
A brief look of surprise crossed his face, and he went quiet for a moment, “but Zeki, I haven’t seen any magic from you in a decade.” He took his hands off Zeki’s shoulders and stepped even closer to him, “Are you sure you can do this? If you cannot then you will be shaming yourself more than Murubil.”
Zeki shifted nervously, “I can do it. Besides, it’s law. I have to.”
“It is. And you have a woman to think about.” He frowned, as though doubtful for a moment, “But you are doing your duty, Zeki.” He embraced him, “My friendship with Murubil is done until his shame is over.”
When his uncle left the sun was completely down. Zeki examined the back of Murubil’s tent. It was a large one, twice the average size, and open in the front. It’s lightweight fabric walls were made of goat and camel fibers. The smell of roasting lamb and cardamom tea greeted him. As usual, Murubil was entertaining guests. Zeki could hear the low octave murmur and hum of their voices. He could hear the crackling of a fire and see the moving, flickering shadows of the men through the fabric.
He examined the length of Murubil’s tent, hoping the men would stay on the other side of it. Zeki placed his right hand on the fabric, and then placed his other hand on the same area. He commanded the atoms to release their hold and change. A black and grey mark appeared in exactly the shape of his hand. He looked over the tent again. It looked bigger every moment. Even if his only intention was to create a black line from one end to the other it might take him all night.
An eruption of laughter broke on the other side of the canvas. He jumped back. His initial thought was that the men were laughing at him.
Don’t be stupid, he told himself, they can’t possibly be laughing at me.
The men continued laughing and talking jubilantly on the other side of the fabric.
He planted his feet strongly on the earth and took a deep breath of the dry evening air. He placed his right hand on the tent, feeling its goat-hair fibers from the tips of his fingers to the edge of his palm. His heart thumped and a drop of sweat rolled from the top of his head onto his nose. He pursed his lips. Old memories of ridicule came to his mind. He pushed them away and refocused on the stiff goat hair fibers under his right hand.
“Men!” a guttural voice barked, “Zeki is touching Murubil’s tent from behind!”
A crowd of his clansmen suddenly surrounded him, and Zeki turned to face them, losing his connection to the fibers. He hated attention almost as much as he hated conflict. But now they were all looking at him, demanding answers. His eyes darted about and his feet started to shift again, but he found the words. His voice was soft and the crowd struggled to hear him. When he completed the story, his throat was constricting painfully.
Murubil himself then emerged from the crowd, silent and solemn, his lips in a thin frown. One fool shouted, “Oh Murubil, is this true? You neglected your duty as guarantor?” Murubil didn’t respond to that. He glowered at Zeki malevolently. Zeki stared back, trying to look aggressive, even though it made him feel like he couldn’t breathe.
One of the clansmen broke this tension crying, “He is a mage! Look — there’s a black handprint on the fabric that wasn’t there before! It’s atomization!” And voices then erupted in excitement over Zeki’s apparent magical abilities. The clansmen said they had either forgotten he was a mage or had never known.
Zeki started shifting again until his feet were pumping the ground as though he were making wine. The chattering of the crowd gradually quieted down until they were staring at him in silence. His armpits were drenched in moisture. He felt pressure to say something more. Or do something.
Murubil said, “I also had not known that Zeki was a mage. His own clansmen say they either forgot or never knew. It must be that Zeki hides his magic because he’s bad at it. Look, only one hand print. How long do you think it took him to do that?”
The crowd laughed in agreement.
“Stupid,” one of his clansmen said, “He is a weak mage, and useless to his family.”
“And a fool too perhaps.” Another man tilted up his chin, looking down at Zeki, “Are you trying to do something that you actually can’t do?”
Zeki didn’t respond to that. He felt the sting of the men’s words, but it was less than he expected. Stupid. Fool. Weak. Those were words he’d feared his whole life, and he’d just taken them in front of a crowd. He looked at the man who had called him stupid, and the man who called him a fool. His feet stopped pumping the earth and his breath became easy. His eyes flicked through the crowd of clansmen. He knew them and now he felt their judgment. I really do look stupid to these men right now. But the thought hardly bothered him.
Instead, a strange tranquility fell on him. The calmness surprised him. He didn’t entirely understand where it came from.
He turned around to face the tent again. He needed a moment to collect himself. This is duty, he urged himself, trying to focus, I have to fulfill my duty. The men were shrinking swiftly in his mind. Smaller and smaller. It was as if something in his heart had peeled off, like the dried out husk around the bough of a date palm tree. The judgment of his clansmen fell to his feet. Karama and his duties to her rose in their place. Standing there in that moment, a part of him died.
Zeki pictured Karama’s face in his mind, as he had planned the previous night. She will be excited when she sees the magic tomorrow morning. He looked at his thick, calloused hands. They were throbbing in an unnatural way.
Murubil and the other men started talking, but Zeki’s mind was elsewhere. He looked back at them, I will do my duty and that will shut them up.
“Murubil,” Zeki raised his voice, loud and strong, “You had your chance. Soon, everyone will know what kind of warrior my family has to fight for them.”
He turned back to the tent, his hands throbbing hot with an unusual energy. He felt he was in a desert within a desert. All emptiness, save for shifting rolling dunes and darkness, chilled and dry. He felt the emptiness expanding. And in the center of this space was one purpose that burned in his heart like a roaring fire.
It was his family’s honor.
He planted his feet on the ground. He could feel the energy from the earth travel up his body. The air around him suddenly thinned. Zeki returned his hands to the tent and, without his even asking the fibers to release, a blackness exploded across the tent the way that a drop of black ink spreads over the surface of clean water. The crowd stepped back. The blackness swirled about the tent, as though the fibers were fighting over which ones would give in to Zeki’s command. Murubil’s home shuddered unnaturally. The crowd stayed back gasping in alarm, but they were unable to look away.
Then the shaking stopped. The entire tent, and everything in it, even the ground surrounding the tent for a good two hand-spans, was completely black.
And Zeki collapsed.