Card Challenge: Day 16
Card Day 16: A rat sitting on a rug in front of a snake charmer’s basket, “playing” a cobra like a flute. Through the doorway, a castle is visible.
Prince Ajid rode over the sandy dunes, the thunder of his horse’s hooves whipping up a flurry of sand behind him. He knew the armies were marching north, and he knew that once they reached the stronghold, his men would be instantly overrun. It was desperation that drove him out into the wild dunes, seeking a miracle that would save the men he had failed in leading.
His eyes searched the dunes, looking for any sign of the promised signs. Some part of him knew it was a fool’s errand, a coward’s desire to flee the battle. No one trusted the old tales spun in the market squares. They were fables created by folks tired of the emptiness of the night, mere myths concocted to provide a brief respite of entertainment and hope. And now, it was his only hope.
H remembered his grandmother’s words when he was very young, spinning tales of a man who lived in the oasis found in the deepest parts of the desert. So remote was this place that most who sought him died in the process, their bones bleached signposts declaring their failure. However, should anyone prove himself worthy and pure, the man would use his great powers to provide whatever the seeker most desired.
Ahead he saw the first sign his grandmother had promised, not believing his eyes as the stones grew from the sand. The perilously stacked stones were clearly assembled in the form of a man, the topmost rock bearing a grim resemblance to a haggard face. It could, of course, be but happenstance, but Ajid pressed on, daring to hope. The sun was growing low in the sky, marking the end of the fifth day of his travels. Surely, this would be his last night before smoke billowed on the horizon, signaling the failure of his ill-conceived quest. He spurred the beast beneath him to greater speeds, passing by the stone giant and following its extended arm.
The sands reclaimed the horizon. It seemed as if no other sign would emerge. Ajid felt his sprits waning; was it nothing but a strange mirage, an accidental similarity that momentarily raised his spirits only to dash them? The sun beat down on his back, burning through the layers of thin robes on his body. The sweat dampened his body, beading along his forehead to descend into his eyes. His mouth was dry and parched as the desert stretching around him. The canteens hung full behind him, but he could not stop. So he pressed on, riding the heaving sides of his horse as it worked itself into a fine lather. There would be time to rest later.
In the distance, Ajid imagined he saw a flickering pool of blue. He knew it was a mirage, just as the stone giant was a regrettable coincidence. Nevertheless, he pressed on. He had dedicated so many days to this quest now, so there was no reason to turn back now when he might possibly achieve something.
The mirage solidified into a small pool, just a tiny breach in the dominion of the sand. In the bottom, Ajid saw brilliantly colored fish swim in the pool that, by all logic, should have dried up in a blink of the desert sun. Here, the wind stilled. Could it be?
As promised, the small pool dwindled down to a small stream reaching into the distance. It was so close. His body ached for a break, and the pool promised cool relief. Yet Ajid remained focused, driven by his need. There would be a better oasis awaiting if they only pressed on. And then, the quest would be at an end, their prayers answered.
In the distance, Ajid heard a call for help. He spun, looking for the source of the cry. Far on the horizon, he could see a man standing, waving his arms as he moved towards Ajid. The figure before him was mostly indistinguishable and minute, but he could make out the shade of brilliant green robes against the golden sand, as well as a splotch of brilliantly white hair atop the tiny head. The man was so far away, but certainly in great need. Ajid paused, drawing his mount to a slower pace. Her sides ballooned swiftly, welcoming the momentary relief. His nature drew him towards the silhouette on the horizon, but his mission spurred him on. Perhaps, after he was done, he could seek out the man and provide for him. Ajid marked the spot in his mind, trying to remember the precise directions from the stream to the figure. He would return, he promised himself.
Turning, he gave the horse a sharp, short kick and sped off along the tiny rivulet of water. Ahead, there was an oasis appearing, brilliant and blue in the distance, even as the sun began to grow swollen and red on the horizon. He rode in, sand flying around him as he brought his horse to a sudden stop. There was a man, just as he had hoped, sitting beneath the palms of the water. Ajid dismounted and walked towards him with great reverence.
“Are you the Man of the Desert?”
The white-haired figure turned towards him slowly, and an uneasy feeling of recognition settled over Ajid. The man’s bright green robes were dusty and worn, but the color was unmistakable. “I am he who you seek,” he croaked, his voice dry and cracked as the soil beneath the sand.
“Only those who prove themselves worthy and pure by his tests may receive their reward. All others will find their desires shattered,” echoed the voice of his long past grandmother. Ajid’s folly sank onto his shoulders. He had come so far, and he had lost.
“I have come to seek your help, though I fear none will be given.” The proud prince’s words faltered, uncertain in the rapidly darkening dusk.
“Ask me what you wish. I will grant as has been deserved.”
Ajid knew his folly, and knew that to ask for the fortresses safety would certainly damn those he loved to a painful death; he knew the legends well enough to know his punishment.
However, besides his dedication, his reckless faith, and his hope, Ajid was also brilliantly cunning. He smiled in the growing gloom. “Great one, I have come far and overcome the trial of the desert you set before me. I ask that you may now grant me victory over the fortress of Prince Ajid. May my armies march to victory!”
The man smiled a sly, wicked smile. He laughed, the sound brittle and echoing over the empty dunes. “Seeker, your request has been granted to the degree of your worth. Go and seek your reward.”
With that, the man disappeared. Ajid sank to his knees in the desert, hoping against hope that his ploy had worked. If not, he had done nothing more to doom them than had already been slated.
After a night of rest, Ajid set off under the kindly eye of the morning sun. He, unknowingly, rode to victory on the shoulder of his wits and perseverance, the wise Prince who was ultimately worthy of his reward.
So, this one nearly stymied me. Ultimately, I wanted to pull in some of the desert/royalty setting, as well as give it a bit of a 1001 Arabian Nights vibe. A little magic and creativity, maybe a bit of a moral. But I also wanted a happy ending. So, I decided that, based on the contents of the card, there could be an interesting spin on someone using the power meant to destroy them as something constructive (you know, like a rat using a snake). Not sure how successful it was, but I tried. And it was 150 words longer than allowed, so I had to cut some stuff. It was definitely a challenge day, but a good one. Hope you enjoyed it!
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.