Flash Fiction: Tribute to the Wild Desert

This week’s flash fiction challenge involved rolling 2d20 to pick a story-meets-story pair.

So: Dune meets Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

***

The smells spilled out over the walls: roasted meat and fresh bread and flowers and fruits and onions.  Their presence filled the alleys with unfulfilled promises, day in and day out. No market noise could drown them out, or hard labor, and even the most raucous street performers could not fill an empty stomach, though they did better than most things.

Ruun knew there was a festival day coming tomorrow, when the gates would open and some of the surplus smells would be allowed to manifest in pauper’s plates, given out to the clamoring masses around the gates.  It did not matter one way or another what the festival would be, just that there would be bread in comparative plenty and a chance at a bit of meat.  Festivals were the only predictable chance at meat, and Ruun remembered, rather distantly, that it was good.

Today, outside the gates that held in the smells of food there were people clearing away rubbish and ringing the cleansing bells and doing all of the things that presaged the celebration.  Ruun watched them work at cleansing the walls and hanging up banners covered in the meaningless garble called words, but eventually got bored and wandered off.  There would be food tomorrow, in plenty, and wondering what the proclamations might say to someone who could read was a waste of time.

Come morning, the smells were there, and perhaps it was only the festival that made them seem stronger, solider, more real, but this promise would not be broken, and all the children wriggled through the crowds to try to get to the front, including Ruun.  Their parents, who knew there would be enough this one day, did not grudge them their enthusiasm as they scooped up sweet rolls and tiny portions of the feast and scurried off to sate themselves.  A cheer went up from inside the walls, and another, and the children ignored them, as it had nothing to do with them.  There was food, and more food, and the noise did not seem like it was going to prevent the food from being available when they were done, so it had no significance.

Hunger somewhat sated, the children returned to see what remained.  Ruun grabbed another sweet bun and tore off a chunk, then startled as something ground against a tooth.  A stone, perhaps? It seemed too smooth.

Ruun spat it out into one palm and stared at it.  It was a tiny figurine, not much larger than a fingernail, of a wing-spread dragon.  Surely it was valuable.  Surely it should not have been in the food.

Surely Ruun would get into trouble if it was noticed missing.

“Excuse me?”

The guard at the gate looked down, frowning.  “What do you want?”

“I found this in my sweet bun.”  Ruun held out the token.  “I don’t want anyone to think I stole it.”

The guard’s eyes went wide, and his hand came down, suddenly, to sieze Ruun’s wrist.

“I didn’t steal it!” It would not do to kick the guard, to fight too hard, to get away. That would only make things worse.  Ruun tugged back, and yelled when the guard got the gate open, but a child is not strong enough to resist being dragged, particularly not an underfed one.  When the gate closed, Ruun waited for the worst, rubbing at the sore wrist and holding the bit of silver close.

The guard bellowed for a superior, which did not make things any the less terrifying, nor did any of the resulting chaos, and eventually Ruun was nudged and herded around into a courtyard full of people with clean clothes and glaring eyes.

“Where did you get the dragon token?”

Ruun swallowed.  “It was in my sweet bun, see?”  The half-crushed pastry might provide exculpatory evidence.

“How did it get out to the pauper’s plates?” someone hissed, and there was a buzz of incomprehensible gossip, and then someone – a priest, perhaps – clapped hands together thunderously and proclaimed, “The gods have spoken!  The last is chosen!”

This cheer was a bit more ragged than the other ones that had escaped from the walls, as if nobody was sure what to do with a child from outside.  Regardless of their lack of enthusiasm, Ruun was bundled off to a strange luxury of vast baths in rooms with greenery and given a clean white shift and told to sleep in a room that was half the size of home, without any family or familiarity.  The little dragon charm was strung on a bit of twine for a necklace, with dire threats as to consequences if it were to be lost, and Ruun nodded and did not pretend to understand, only obey.

There was another banner hung up in the room, and no amount of staring at it would make it give up any meaning, but the effort was sufficiently exhausting to allow sleep despite the room’s terrifying unfamiliarity.  In the morning, Ruun got up, put on the shift, and was dragged off for another bath, which seemed even more a dreadful waste of precious water than the first.  Since there was plenty to drink, and plenty to eat afterwards, the profligacy of the people inside the wall was no more than an idle curiosity.

There were other children who seemed to be in the same basic situation, more or less: dressed in white, scrubbed, and set up at the same table for breakfast.  There the similarities ended, for their little dragons were on chains rather than string, their clothes were fancier than the simple shift Ruun had been given, and they seemed to feel they were on some kind of grand adventure.  Eavesdropping on their conversations made clear that they, too, had found their dragons concealed in buns, and that this was some sort of honor for which they had been prepared or even hoping.  They bragged – about their fine boots, about their special training in memory and wisdom, about their skill in a fight, about all the things their families had done to prepare them for this moment when they might be sent as a tribute across the desert.

It also became clear that this honor happened at the end of a trek across the desert, which made Ruun wonder about whether or not these inside-the-walls people had any sense whatsoever.  The desert was not precisely a friendly place, even without the wildmen that were, according to the overheard conversations, supposed to be welcoming them.  The stories about wildmen outside the walls were not precisely full of welcome and good cheer.

Eventually, someone approached, and Ruun squinted.  She was a wiry, sun-battered woman with her hair in braids and a long staff, and perhaps she was a wildman, she had the look, the loose robes of someone who spent time in the desert, something uncanny about her. So perhaps there was something to the story about the wildmen wanting tribute.  She explained how to walk, how to test the ground, all the things that Ruun already half-knew, living outside the walls where the city started to wash into the desert and the desert into the city. Be careful of your boots, if you have them. Water on the horizon may not be real.  Do not wake the dragons.

Finally, to great pomp, they gathered up and started off, and Ruun peered into the crowds as they wound through the space outside the walls, wondering if anyone would see and know what had happened.  There was no chance to escape back into the crowd, certainly not with a shift this clean and white and obvious, so the entire procession made it out past the broken rocks that delineated the boundary of the desert, and started off across the featureless sand, towards a place called “Refuge of Dragons.”

It was actually surprisingly pleasant.  The little caravan brought food and water and so there was nothing in particular to worry about there, and the sand was easier on Ruun’s feet than the rubble and debris of the alleys.  The other children complained about the wind, and the sand, and the sun, and did not know how to tie their veils properly, and did not ask anyone for help with them.

As they settled in for the first evening, one of the children proclaimed, “This is stupid, I’m going home.”  The priests all turned to look at the wildman, who shrugged and said, “Take a day’s supply of water with you. Leave the rest for us.”  The child and his servants partitioned their supplies, and camped to the edge, so they could depart without getting entangled with the rest of the travelers.

They were taking their goodbyes when the screaming began, and a second child was dragged out of her tent.  She had one boot on – fine white leather, embossed with dragons – and her other foot was swollen and already going blue.

“Scorpion,” said the wildman, and drew a knife, and cut to bleed out the venom while the girl howled.  Several of her servants had to hold her down while the wildman tended the wound.  “Take a day’s water with you,” she said, then, and sent her off in the company of the other child who was leaving.  “Leave the rest for us.”

“Will she be all right?” one of the other children asked.

The wildman shrugged, and rolled up her things, and waited for the rest of them.

The walk was a little less pleasant, with the dark mood on the other children, who fell to gossiping about Ruun, carefully within earshot.  “How did the other charm get outside the walls?” they wanted to know.  “Weren’t they supposed to be for us?” If it was a mistake that the sweet bun had gotten to the pauper’s plates, it was at least not one anyone had had the power to countermand.  Ruun’s toes curled into the sand, Ruun’s veils kept the wind from biting, and Ruun’s ears kept hearing the murmurings, but Ruun kept walking without acknowledging them, and eventually they grew bored and turned to a wistful discussion about baths.

There were no scorpions that night, or at least they did not lurk in boots.

The next day, the complaining about baths grew louder, despite adult explanations that there was no water in the desert to provide them.  The complaints grew more and more elaborate when they paused for the heat of the midday, tucked up under drapes to keep off the sun and drinking water that now tasted a bit odd from its time in skins.  It was thus, perhaps, no surprise when, as they started again, one of the children said, “There, there’s water, it must be an oasis.”

The wildman ignored them, arraying the caravan to her liking.

The third child gathered her servants and said, “I’m going to have a bath,” and marched off towards the mirage.

The wildman said, “Take your water and leave,” as the adults scurried after.

By evening, the sand was giving way to rocks again, and Ruun had to be careful of them, for they were sharp, and thus wound up walking towards the end of the caravan, far away from the sudden sound of drums.

“Come out and fight me, come out and fight!” shouted the last child, beating on the drum with a stick.  “I’m not afraid.”

The wildman held the caravan back.

“Your eyes are made of jewels, the spines on your back have a sharpness that surpasses the finest blade, come out and fight me, I want one!”

A stone stirred, and then another, and wings spread as the dragon roused, blinking at the noise.

“Ha, there you are, come get me!”

The dragon extended its snout towards the screaming child, curious.  The child threw a rock at it.

Then the child was gone, and the dragon turned away, and curled back up, vanishing into the sand.  One of the servants made a noise of alarm.

The wildman said, “Take your water and go if you wish.  Do any remain?”

“… There’s me,” said Ruun.

“I see,” said the wildman.  “You are the first.  Come, child, and tell me your name.”

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