A Young Sha'ir's Letters Home

written by Najib al-Qudra ibn Naaman
compiled by his mother, Maneira al-Liham bint Farid

Copyright 1995 by Edward Keyes

Letter One, The Journey from Qudra to Huzuz

Dearest Mother,

After seeing you and Father for such a short time after such a long absence, I realized that you probably are as curious about my adventures as I was about local events. I'm glad I had at least the chance to relate my experiences in finding Ala'i, the meetings with my new and good friends, the unfortunate events surrounding Uncle Jamal and Aunt Farida, and the strange workings of Fate which even now compel me to travel yet again.

Still, though, I am now embarked on a great expedition to the far reaches of the world, and will probably not see you, or for that matter any of my loving family, for quite some time. The least I can now do is send regular missives to you, so that even though you shall not see your son, you can at least know he is well, and what manner of adventures he is getting himself into.

Rashad was forced to sell his fine ship, the Violet Victory, in order to travel across the desert to Ahdal. Weaven especially was sad to see his fine sails given to someone else -- perhaps he will be able to "dye-tie" the sails for Rashad's final vessel of choice. Fully half of the sailors decided to brave the caravan trail for the opportunity to continue working for Rashad, but their Fate was not to reach Ahdal with us.

At the midpoint of our journey, we were savagely attacked at night. I blame myself for many of the casualties, for it was my watch when it occurred. I swear to you, may the Lady take me if I lie, that these attackers had skills of stealth above anything I have seen Moradin, already an accomplished scout even at his young age, perform. They came out of the night like shadows, dark and silent, and before I could utter a sound, I was staring at my own blood pouring onto the desert sands.

I scrambled to my feet to try and defend myself, but my fortÚ has never been in brawling, you know that. When I was hit once more, my senses quite left me -- the last thing I remembered was little Ala'i's squeal of terror as his master fell before his eyes.

I don't wish to frighten you, Mother, but you must know from reading my account that I survived all right. Indeed, Weaven, calling upon powers whose nature I have yet to exactly divine, called me back from the doorstep of death. I was much to weak to partake in the battle that was still raging, so I bid him take my staff to use.

I had known that the staff had some magical ability when I acquired it, but I had yet to find out exactly what. Weaven, in his exuberant style, called forth powers from the staff I had no idea were there, tossing men ten feet or more with each hit, with a sound like stone hitting stone.

The battle still raged -- the attackers were as many as we, and far more accustomed to the sword than our sailors were. Finally, we were able to prevail, but none of us were more than a hair's breadth away from succumbing to exhaustion and collapsing to the sand, never to awake.

When we had a chance to catch our breath, we discovered the true nature of the danger that had faced us, for the men we had defeated were Holy Slayers! That fact alone nearly sent Rikker and Rahab, and very nearly myself as well, running away into the darkness of night with some insane instinct to hide.

We recovered very few items from them, the most frightening being a ring worn by the leader. It was only much later in our trip that I discovered its true purpose: when a special word is uttered by the wearer, he is slain. Yes, mother, you read that correctly. These Slayers are so dedicated that they would rather kill themselves than be questioned. For some reason, Weaven still wears that ring, though he does not know the word -- I believe he gets a thrill from living dangerously. Myself, I'd already be safe at home if the hand of Fate had not deemed that my destiny lay elsewhere.

We know that it is impossible to hide from the Slayers, should they want us found. Our only hope is that the insult we originally gave is small enough not to warrant an assassination attempt even larger than the one which killed all our crew, but left us still alive. Rikker and Rahab were shaken, but their loyalty to Rashad remained unbroken.

In Ahdal, Rashad was able to sell half of the oil he had brought on camel-back across the desert. The rest was loaded into a new ship, Following Fate, manned by a new crew, for our journey to Huzuz, the first stop on our quest to the Ruined Kingdoms.

The rest, aside from a portion retained for ship's use, was sold in Fort Adari, a military station serving as a way-station at the entrance to the al-Tariq Channel, a narrow strait serving as prime preying ground for pirates, the most notorious of which, the Shark of Suq Bay, we were fortunate enough to avoid.

Unfortunately, we were not fortunately enough to avoid all the pirates of these waters. Soon into the channel, we came across seven stranded men, who professed to be survivors from a previous pirate attack. Little did we know that these men were elite pirates themselves, sent prior to an attack to establish themselves in strategic positions.

The actual attack came a day or two later, when a larger ship hailed us and sent an envoy aboard. Upon learning that our cargo consisted of nothing but the two crates of oil, they were, of course, disappointed, and proceeded to search the ship. As Fate would have it, they discovered Rashad's cache of gold coins, which he intended to use in Hiyal.

I suppose I cannot blame him for his subsequent action -- he burst into a rage, lashing out at the nearest pirate with his sword, as many merchants might do when their life's blood, gold, is threatened. I imagine I might even have acted similarly were a library about to fall under a thoughtless mob's torches.

Battle was joined in full, with pirate reinforcements sent across boarding planks while archers fired flaming arrows into the sails of the Following Fate. Our crew had been locked below deck, so the battle was ours alone to win or lose. As it turned out, we fared quite well. The staff which Weaven was so kind to return to me functioned admirably, its concussive powers eminently useful for tossing pirates overboard. And the pirates already on board were only armed with jambiyas, since bulkier weapons would have been impossible to hide.

Indeed, in a move that surprised me greatly, the great warrior Aasim took his fight back to the pirate's ship, after dispatching pirates onboard our vessel. The others followed, while below Rikker had managed to force the door holding the crew captive. Many rushed to the fight, grabbing short bows to pick off pirate crewmen while Weaven called upon his powers to burn the enemy sails, even as ours fell to the deck as ashes.

Aasim finally fell to the pirate captain, falling into the channel. Fayiz immediately abandoned his fight to dive in and save his master from drowning. Aasim lived, but his fine scimitar, a gift from his father, was lost forever to the shifting currents of the al-Tariq.

Shortly thereafter, the pirate crew surrendered, although the captain had to be subdued by sheer weight of numbers. I was able to use a spell to help prevent the ship from entirely burning, but both vessels were, as the sailors said, "dead in the water," the sails totally destroyed.

The next morning, Aasim and Rashad set off on horseback to Hiyal to buy new sails and hire a vessel to bring them to us -- he had claimed the pirate vessel as ours by some seafaring custom the exact nature of which I am not familiar. In the meantime, we grew quite sick of lemons and oranges as we waited and recovered from our wounds: the pirate vessel had captured a large amount of such fruits. Gold, too, graced our palms, as the rumors of the profits of pirating were evidently not exaggerated too far.

Several days later, Aasim and Rashad arrived alive and well, aboard two ships which then towed our own to Hiyal for repairs, where we had to stay for a week.

I did not much care for Hiyal. It is a huge city, about the size of Qudra, I am told, but its peoples are squeezed into a much smaller area, and the black smoke from the forges hangs low over the city, coating building sides and throats alike. When finally we left, I spent much time above deck to cleanse myself with the clean Suq Bay air.

Rashad switched ships yet again, preferring something larger after seeing how much the Following Fate was dwarfed by the pirate ship. This new vessel he christened the Dancing Damsel, and even hired a young woman entertainer to match the name. It was a passenger liner, and we were joined on our journey to Huzuz by eighteen others, who paid a hundred dinars a head to visit the City of Delights.

Shortly we arrived in Wasat, the midpoint of our journey. Moradin took the passengers on a tour of the city, while I took in the sights myself. As it so chanced, he and I met up again on the way back to the Dancing Damsel. When we arrived, a great surprise was in order.

The ship was crawling with mamluks -- everyone on board had been arrested for transporting slaves!

Moradin and I were shocked, of course. You met Rashad in Qudra, and in my judgment he was an upright individual, if sometimes blinded by the lure of profit. Moradin and I tracked them down to the local mamluk station, but refused to believe in their guilt.

We had a theory that they had been framed, so we asked the dockmaster if he recalled seeing any slaves being put on board. He didn't, but he reported that a large contingent of armed men had boarded the Damsel prior to the mamluks' arrival. The dockmaster was also in better touch with the rumors of the town, and we learned that the slaves had been a dozen Enlightened children, drugged and holed up in large clay pots.

We surmised that the ship the others arrived in held answers to our questions, but we were yet troubled by the fact that Rashad had made no mention to either of us of this situation, even if he did not transport the slaves willingly. Moradin was especially confused, since he and Rashad have been long-time business partners.

Although we bent the law to do it, Moradin and I snuck onto the other ship using the twin covers of darkness and invisibility. We sought to find evidence that would free our friends, but the documents I found were all but indecipherable: "the party of the first part" this and "compound interest deducted" that.

Suddenly a breeze blew through the room, even though there were no windows, and I thought I saw something to my rear. When I looked, nothing was there, but when I looked back, I found sitting on the desk papers of such immediate worth: "purchase of ten slaves for so much" that I snatched them, grabbed Moradin, and left immediately.

The run to the station was too much for my weak lungs, and I was forced to give the papers to Moradin to deliver on the swift feet of the young and athletic. I arrived there just in time to hear my friends absolved of all charges on the basis of the new evidence.

It was only later that I found out that the mysterious breeze had actually been caused by an old acquaintance of ours, the dao Caiphas, whom we rescued in the desert so long ago. Aasim had made a deal with him: in exchange for proof of their innocence, we were to travel to Tajar to "help an innocent." The workings of Fate are mysterious indeed, and though it means our trip to Huzuz and the Ruined Kingdoms will be delayed, we are committed to this new task.

Rashad was very apologetic afterwards. He admitted to finding out about the slaves shortly after departing Hiyal, and to not telling us, but swore on his mother's grave never to even think of transporting illegal materials again. I didn't have the heart to tell him of the sizeable cache of alcohol Weaven has accumulated, for personal use, on board.

The trip to Huzuz was uneventful, and Rashad has just sold the Dancing Damsel for a huge profit, buying a smaller ship like the Violet Victory in exchange.

Huzuz is a magical city, but I regret that we were able to stay here but a day, when a lifetime would not be enough to see all that is wondrous here. We set sail for Tajar in the morrow, on board a ship that even now Rashad is striving to name appropriately.

Where our course takes us from there is up to the winds of Fate to decide, yet I remain,

Your loving son,

Najib ibn Naaman

Letter Two, Through Tajar to Help an Innocent

Dearest Mother,

I fear that I will not be able to send another letter to you for some time, so I thought it best to write even a little now. As the great Qataras said, "A camel in the stable is worth two on the sands."

As I have previously related, we are on a quest set for us by the noble dao Caiphas, to help an innocent in repayment for his help to us. We arrived in Tajar after three days at sea, uneventful except for our catching the edge of one of the storms that frequent those waters. I must tell you, Mother, that the bustling harbor of Qudra, and even of golden Huzuz itself, pales in comparison to the sheer volume of trade carried out in Tajar. Why, Rashad's eyes nearly left his head when he saw all of it!

While Rashad and Moradin left to take care of some small merchant business, I and the others checked into the Golden Cutlass, recommended to us as the best inn in all of Tajar. Indeed it was, although I hesitate to tell you the price we paid for the luxuries given us -- no less than five dinar a night! Why, at school, I could dine for a month for half that amount.

The coffee alone was worth the price, though, a house blend with an aroma that must be experienced to be understood. I tried to procure some for you and Father, but they refused me, to my great sorrow.

In any event, the five of us were sitting around drinking, when to our astonishment who should arrive but Rashad and Moradin, in the company of the city guard! After the fiasco in Wasat, we all expected the worst, but it soon became known to all that the guards were no less than an honor escort!

Rashad tried to explain, but tripped over his own tongue in his excitement. At that point, a very small man piped up, jumping up on a stool to tell the tale of Rashad and Moradin's adventures, drawing the attention of all present.

"I am Kibun," the gnome said, to the mutters of onlookers -- how should he be named "dog"? -- but he continued, "a humble barber, and a witness to the tale I now tell. I was minding my own business in the marketplace -- trimming, cutting, and shaving all for a modest price -- when a commotion arose around the tent of the healer Fayiz, respected thoughout the city.

"When I arrived, I was told that the tent was possessed, speaking doom to all who would enter! The city guard were preparing to burn the tent, to destroy the spirit. I was shaving the noble Moradin here," and I should interject, Mother, that the barber's skills were well performed, for never had I seen Moradin looking as respectable, "when it became known to the crowd that a little girl was possibly in the tent, given up for dead by the guard.

"At this the noble Rashad here, strode bravely into the tent to rescue the girl no matter what the cost to himself. After a few minutes he emerged again through a hole he had cut in the tent's wall, pursued by vipers! As he had planned, though, as soon as the vipers saw the sky, they gave up the fight, slithering off into the sands.

"Moradin, now, seeing his friend in trouble, strode bravely into the tent as well. I am not a hero myself, being only a humble barber, but even I was touched by Rashad's bravery, and resolved to do all I could to help, so I followed Moradin in. The noble doctor's tent was a shambles inside, but we soon heard screams for help from a back room, so we all rushed in.

"There in a bed was an old woman, but no sign of the girl. Rashad, looking in whatever hiding places a young girl might seek, soon located the girl in a cabinet, but to our astonishment, she was only six inches tall! May the great gods of the seas strike me down if I lie!

"Moradin, though, could not stand in awe long, for a gigantic cobra suddenly appeared behind him, striking him without warning in the shoulder. It was twelve feet long if an inch, and towered over us all, with fangs as long as my finger, dripping venom!

"The woman was laughing hysterically, and I thought perhaps she was the cause of these strange happenings. Indeed she was, for as soon as I confronted her, she threw an armload of snakes at me, and then -- may the great gods of the winds strike me down if I lie! -- she turned into a giant cobra, right before my eyes!

"Moradin was delirious from the poison, and Rashad seemed mesmerized by the cobra's strange weavings. I am far from quick on my feet, but I was able to elude the cobra's strike at least once. I still don't know how we managed it, but we grabbed the girl and beat a hasty retreat from the tent.

"When we emerged, all the brave citizens of Tajar were there, with sticks and clubs, to ward off the cobras who pursued us! Even I, a humble barber, made the cobra feel the bite of my quick darts! And together, we all beat back the evil creatures.

"Moradin, though, collapsed to the sands, the poison of the cobra all but stilling his heart. Even though I am but a humble barber, I know something of the healing arts, but my paltry skills were unable to save him. Only the great healer Fayiz, in gratitude to the heroes here before you, was able to call Moradin's spirit back from the great Beyond.

"And that, my friends, is the tale of the great heroes Rashad and Moradin, and of the humble barber Kibun."

Mother, I must tell you he has quite a way with words, and I fear that my memory and pen cannot do justice to the stirring tale he told. Later we learned that the unfortunate curse laid upon the little girl was able to be reversed without ill effect.

Kibun was curious about our group, so we filled him in as best as we thought we could and still protect the honor and safety of my family. He expressed a desire to join us, and no one had any objection, as Rashad and Moradin testified to his bravery and skills.

I soon learned that he is a sorcerer of sorts, as well as a barber, an outcast from a community of mechanician gnomes to the south, one who preferred the easier traditional teaching of the magical arts. His unfortunate name he gained from losing a fight of honor with another gnome from his homeland -- the price of his defeat was to lose his name and place in the city. It is a great sorrow, for from what Rashad and Moradin told me, he would do honor to any family.

As a result of their bravery, the three of them had been invited for an audience with Fahad, the venerable merchant-lord of Tajar himself. The terms of the summons suggested a commission of sorts, so the rest of the party was invited along as well. Needless to say, the noble barber Kibun had his work cut out for him in making us all presentable to such a great lord -- Weaven was another matter, though, as he refused letting even a comb touch his hair.

When we arrived, the great Fahad took us into his confidence. I hesitate to relate the exact terms of our agreement, for his family honor is at stake. Let it suffice to say that we are to be sent across the desert as messengers, to locate and bring back a dear old friend of his. The mission is of great importance, and all the signs point to the fact that this is the quest Caiphas wishes us to undertake.

Fahad was extremely generous to us. To help us on our journey, he intrusted us with Ala'i, a carpet containing the spirit of a great scholar, prophet, and sha'ir, to guide us with words of wisdom. And on top of that, he promised us each a gift of our choosing. Aasim asked for a weapon special enough to replace his uncle's sword. Rashad, ever the merchant, asked for letters of recommendation. Moradin surprised us all in asking for a wife -- I never thought he was the type to want to settle down, and I just hope his wife can keep up with him! Kibun, ever the honorable, asked for the opportunity to take a name and a home in Tajar, to replace his lost heritage.

And I ... I was stymied. I have a loving family, a good home, and good health. I am gaining knowledge with every new day, and I have the companionship of Ala'i. I am in the service of Fate with friends I would trust with my life, on quests most noble. I have a sturdy robe, a sturdy camel, and money enough to buy food and water for many days. The only blot on my life is the danger Uncle Jamal and Aunt Farida are in, but as powerful as Fahad is, well, not even the gods can change the past.

What was I to ask for? I could not insult the honor of our host by refusing any gift, but truly I am content with my lot in life. The reward of helping an old man with what might be his last wish, reuniting old friends, and helping an innocent were enough for me, as was the honor of travelling with the spirit of a noble sha'ir. I must admit I begged off with this explanation, and I hope I did not do Fahad any dishonor by refusing his generosity so.

We leave in the morrow on a caravan across the desert, accompanied by several of Fahad's assistants. I shall have to leave descriptions of their characters until I know more of them from their actions on our quest. If all goes well, we should be returning to Tajar in two weeks time, and I shall be sure to send you another missive as soon as I can smell the sea air of the harbor again, and perhaps sooner if I find a willing messenger among the towns of the desert.

Do not worry for me. It is a blessing of the gods for us to be joined by one such as Kibun at such a time --áthe varied skills and knowledge of a barber are renowned throughout the world, and I look forward to discussing the magical arts with one such as he on the long journey ahead.

The drifting sands of the desert are blown by the winds of Fate, and as I go to join them in the dance of destiny, I yet remain,

Your loving son,

Najib ibn Naaman