Xaghra’s Revenge excerpt from Chapter 23 used on talks
Read to the Salon literary event in Malta April 2018 and at the Gozo Central Library
1551 – Stjepan was one of 5,000 people on the island of Gozo, near Malta, who were mass abducted by pirates and sold as slaves in Libya. His wife, Lidia, was taken with other women to a harem in Constantinople.
Convinced his life couldn’t get worse, Stjepan sat on a warm stone outside a single-floor long hut. On the rocky horizon, the pomegranate sun whispered goodbye to another blistering day. It appeared huge, as if welled up with the same tears Stjepan fought to control. Losing his family was bad enough, but the talisman, too? A whiff of rosemary reignited a memory of Lidia stirring a stewpot, but that merely reinforced the grumbling in his stomach.
An uneasy shiver told him of a presence behind him, probably Guillium intent on poking him with a rusty Crusader short sword. He’d stolen it off one of the young slaves who’d found it in the sand.
A guttural voice spoke to the hills as if they listened too. “You’re missing today’s speciality, hard bread and sour cheese. You need to keep your strength up.”
Stjepan looked up, not sure who’d spoken. He was surprised that Sabid would bother and waved his hand dismissively rather than reveal the angst in his voice.
The negro was in grumbling mood. “Stjepan, we are in similar circumstances. Here we are where nothing much grows, the sun bakes us, our master makes us dig ditches. Both lost our families to raiders. You probably think that I was one of them, don’t you? On el Suleimein I was a trustee, but a slave nonetheless.”
Stjepan didn’t know why Sabid talked to him. He couldn’t give a fig whether he was a slave or not. On the other hand, the moor had been less barbaric than other overseers. The big man’s empty right eye socket encouraged curiosity rather than a search for emotions. Finally, Stjepan found his voice.
“I’ve lost more than you know.”
“We’ve all lost loved ones in this sorry world, Stjepan. Ah, then it was the trinket they took off you.” His face hadn’t betrayed humour, nor teasing. Stjepan’s hand slid into his ripped, once-green shirt as if the numinous effigy still hung from his neck.
Stjepan murmured, “As I said, I’ve lost more than you could know.”
“And I know more than you think, my Gozo friend.” He handed over a piece of bread as if it too was a talisman only to loosen a tongue. “In my village, our magi used objects to make the unusual happen. Is that what your’s did?”
“Our religion has relics of saints we pray to.”
“Not the same, is it?”
Sabid either knew more about the stone female effigy or he was an intuitive speculator.
The man squatted to whisper. Stjepan was surprised he could smell his sweat since he must reek as much as anyone. “The magi are human. Even with their incantations they die, eventually. I was with our Mgubi-the-wise, and he told me the spells on the feathers were in the minds of the victims. The feathers were nothing.”
Stjepan’s voice became dangerously loud. “I thought that but why am I here, my wife God knows where, and my son…?” Emotion dried his throat and he couldn’t continue.
“If your spirits have been asleep for too long, they’d take a long time to work. You’ll need patience.”
“Then what about you, Sabid? If your spirits don’t need a talisman and your magi have used them all the time, why are you stuck out here with me?”
“I don’t pretend to know. Perhaps my people’s magic is being used for others or has grown tired.” He poked a stick in the sand and drew a perfect circle. “I know this. If your spirits had lain quiet for many generations, then by awakening and moving through you, something big will happen. Don’t you think so?”
Stjepan didn’t know what to think. He looked at the circle in the sand. The setting sun cast shadows on half of the rim. It was as if he was one of those grains of sand. A scintilla, one among countless thousands. As he stared gloomily into the sandy arena, a small part of the centre shifted. Both men stood and stared briefly at each other in shock before looking again at the circle. From beneath the centre an emerald green beetle surfaced. The size of a date, it looked at them, turned and scurried away.
Stjepan wondered if it would turn at the circle’s circumference; give up trying to escape and return to its hole. After straddling the indented curve, the iridescent beetle crawled away at speed.
The metaphor was obvious. The two men exchanged glances.
Stjepan wondered if the beetle’s hole was better than his own usual night reposing places. He spoke first. “What have we to lose?”
Sabid grunted approval, but tapped his nose with a scarred finger. “Although two scarabs are better than one, this thought needs exploring more.”
Stjepan eyed Sabid as if for the first time. Ignore that empty right orb and the man’s face was extraordinarily handsome with square jaw and smooth black-olive skin. Old: mid-forties, broad shoulders and taller than most. Perhaps he’d lost his eye as the result of envy for his good looks. A jealous master. Yet disfigured slaves held a higher value. He could have seen something he shouldn’t. Whatever it was, Sabid would be a useful ally in an escape situation.
Sabid shook the light manacles they wore at their ankles. “These wouldn’t be a problem, my friend, but look at our beetle now.”
Stjepan’s eyes followed the pointing finger. A red hairy spider the size of a hand had pounced on the beetle.
Stjepan’s stomach tightened. He stood. He knew the Camel Spider could run on sand faster than a man. “Surely it is no match for the beetle?”
The spider took on the battle and had turned the beetle on to its back and sunk its fangs into the softer underbelly.
Sabid stood too and threw a stone, but missed. “It’s already over. Our beetle is having its insides turned into gruel.”
Picking up a sharp fist-sized stone and wishing he had his farmer’s sling, Stjepan took a few cautious steps closer before hurling it. Both beetle and spider were hit, putting an end to misery for one, and executing the other.
Scratching his head, Sabid grumbled, “That changes things, Stjepan. It’s an omen.”
“I thought the beetle was an omen, from Tzabib, telling me to make my way to Gozo and–”
“I thought so too, but other spirits are operating here.”
“So, I shouldn’t try to leave? That cannot be right. My home is on Gozo, my son is there and my wife will try and get there. I know that.” Tears filled his eyes.
“We need to think more like in a game of chess. Sacrifice pawns to gain strategic positions for later. Consider this, Stjepan. Who is likely to be in a stronger position–you as a slave digging ditches, or Lidia in a rich merchant’s home possibly earning enough to buy her freedom?”
“She could as easily be in chains in the harem’s cellar.”
“Harem, possibly, but if she’s good looking–don’t look at me like that–they don’t get damaged. Unless…”
Stjepan didn’t want him to finish. He knew women in the seraglio had to tread carefully. Upset the eunuch bodyguards and she could be badly treated. Even geldings have a nasty kick.
“So, the plan is to wait for her to buy her way out and come for me? That isn’t the way for a man.”
“I agree, but it is one way for a slave.”
The cool of the night crept in over Stjepan’s shoulders. He hadn’t agreed to stay but he might have to, until chance threw him an open window.
There is a provenance of nostalgia to this excerpt. I lived in Cheltenham Spa in the 1950s and 60s. My street, Hester’s Way produced SIDEREAL, a science fiction fanzine printed by Gestetner skins and stapled. I thought every street produced a scifi magazine. My dad illustrated it including the cover art. I thought every dad did that. One of his illustrations was for a story on Mars when a man drew a circle in the sand. A tiny creature crawled up through the centre of the circle – first contact. Hence the circle in Libyan sand in the above excerpt.
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