Forward: This chapter was written in Morocco, after visiting the famed city of Marrakesh, which serves the basis for the bazaar in most fantasy books and films (if you’ve ever seen Disney’s Aladdin you know what I mean). It’s no wonder I wrote this during my trip, which gave me the opportunity to be directly inspired. Morocco is, after all, an exotic location, even by fantasy standards. Also in this chapter, Thelana meets Red Sonja.
The Bizarre Bazaar of Thetis
Beside the orange-red wall, beneath the square guard tower, a typical lady of Thetis set out to dry her laundry in the noonday sun. Her clothesline was already sagging with the weight of newly washed sheets, and to it she added her husband’s kilt and her daughter’s white sleeveless tunic. She then stooped to her wicker basket to grab another set of clothes. But upon returning to the line, she found herself utterly dumbfounded, for the kilt and tunic were gone.
Thelana turned her foot from side-to-side, showing him how the leather laces crisscrossed up her calves.
“You also stole someone’s sandals?” Xandr said.
“Hey, you know I had no choice . . . they don’t welcome Ilmar in the summertime,” she quipped, a snatch from a childhood rhyme, “or accept the sky as raiment.”
He gazed over the gleaming white tunic that fell from her neck to her thighs. It was strange seeing her this way, with clothes. She seemed giddy and radiant, like any young girl with a new outfit. “How you look beautiful.”
She smiled lovingly.
Ghostly quiet and unnoticeable as ever, Emma watched her Ilmar companions, puzzled by their sudden difference in attitude.
“Change is welcome,” he said, fastening the kilt about his waist, “. . . from time to time.”
“Yes, but,” Thelana replied, “it does feel awkward, after so long.” She tugged at the neckline of her tunic, “. . . and is this chafing usual?”
“You will adjust,” he answered.
Their horses were tethered at the main gate, an open archway flanked by wooden doors inlaid with iron rivets. The main street was wide enough for several wagons to pass through, bustling with the traffic of pedestrians, lined on each side by simple, two story buildings of reddish earth and stone, with doors and shutters painted a vivid blue. The walls were draped with purple bougainvillea. Islands of myriad flora were set between them, with windmill-shaped jasmine and fragrant gardenia, tall cypress and leaning palms. As the three strolled along the jigsaw of pavement, narrow avenues made themselves apparent between the houses and the shops. At the central square, children could be found kicking at an empty gourd. Stripe-tented arcades led to the more densely populated bazaars, where craftsman went about their daily routines, as did the basket weavers with their baskets and tanners with their oils and ox hides and sculptors with their spinning pottery wheels. Towering above it all, a ziggurat-shaped monument rose some distance away.
Thelana shook her head disapprovingly. “So many people, living such oblivious lives . . .”
“I prefer it to shrubs and rocks,” Emma retorted. “I was beginning to think we were the last three humans in the world.”
Rubbing his unkempt beard, Xandr turned to his two female companions. “We should split up. These cities can be bewildering.”
“Maybe for you,” said the dark eyed sorceress, “but I can find my way. We’ll need to find an inn before the moon eclipses.” She sighed with relief at the thought, An inn! An inn at last!
“I’ll look for a change merchant in the bazaar,” Thelana chimed. “I doubt we can spend the jewels I have here.”
Xandr cautioned them with a look. “Be careful, both of you, we do not know the customs of these people, and we cannot draw any attention to ourselves. The least you say and do the better, especially you, Thelana.”
She folded her arms, mocking offense. “And where will you be off to?”
“There,” said he, pointing to the ziggurat. “Do not forget our Oath. We must gain audience with the ruler of this city. I aim to find the way.”
Rounding another narrow spiral of steps, Xandr found Thetis to be more labyrinthine than he had at first believed. The great pyramidal structure, what he assumed to be a government or religious center, or both, was clearly visible but beyond approach. From the look of his surroundings, Thetis had in earlier days gone by other names, as old streets, fractured by time and foliage, oftentimes led nowhere, into walls and houses, and newer streets overlapped them. Foundations had collapsed and been rebuilt or abandoned. Even the rusty-orange outer wall with its square guard towers showed evidence of changing materials and building techniques.
After a little while, the sensations of the sea drew him up a flight of stairs that ran along the perimeter wall to an aperture overlooking the harbor. Gulls glided in pairs distantly below, over rich blue waters, between arms of sloping hills that embraced the Sea like the crescent of a waning moon. At his feet, the red-orange wall disintegrated into salty white boulders beside the mooring docks, where fishermen untangled their nets to count the day’s bounty. The merchant galleons were anchored, as were the warships, consisting of the fifty-oared pentaconter and the trireme with its sleek hull and double-decked set of oars, one hundred and seventy in all, tapering elegantly to a solid bronze battering ram. Xandr had longed for the Sea, for its scent, the calming sound of undulating waves, the moist wind breaking against his bare torso. But his meditation was interrupted as angry shouts rang from the city below.
In the streets behind the Sea wall, homes were stacked like white cubes, with tiny windows and doors barely sufficient to pass through. Two men stood quarrelling at one such door. The one was reaching for a blue-painted doorknob, while the other cradled a swaddle of rags Xandr surmised to be a woman. It was this second man that was shouting, in desperation.
“Please! My wife–my wife should not be out here as it is. But I brought you to see her, to see how badly she is!”
“I told you already,” the other man answered, his voice cold and measured, “there is nothing more I can do.”
“But–but once she is well . . . I can return to work and . . . you know I cannot leave her alone, you told me so yourself!”
“I need payment today,” he said, “not tomorrow.”
“But we have nothing!”
“Sell your house if necessary.”
“Sell my house?” The peasant’s voice broke into sobs and his wife slipped momentarily from his grasp. He pulled her back up. She suppressed a whimper. “But where will we live? How will we survive?”
“I do not know and neither do I care. I am not a charity. What if everyone said that Tsigunis gave away his medicines for free? They would all come flocking to my door, not a one willing to pay. Business would be ruined. Conjure up the dirham, or let me be!” And he hurried back to his doorknob.
“But she’ll die!” the husband cried, and he laid his wife across his lap, falling to his knees to beg.
“That’s your problem.”
Xandr knew he had heard enough. Approaching suddenly, he halted the apothecary at the shoulder. “Hold a minute, sir.”
Tsigunis was short and unimposing, and turning to face the wall of bare muscle and the great scar crossing it, he became startled. “May I be of service to you?” he asked the Batal after regaining his composure.
“Yes,” said Xandr, “you may indeed. I am . . . a good friend of your patient and of her husband here.”
“You are?” he said in disbelief.
“Long time friends. But I have been out of town, in the barbarian lands to the north. I overheard your predicament, and suggest you let him pay you later.”
The peasant, seeing this, did not know what to think, and a mixture of joy and despair passed over his face. He half-stood, his wife sitting upright, and opened his mouth as if to speak, but no words came out.
“My apologies, but that is not possible,” Tsigunis replied. “I have my policies.”
Xandr looked on him unhappily. “Ah, but I assure you, you will be paid. I will see to it myself.”
“Do you have the dirham to loan him?”
“No, as I am a barbarian, I carry no worldly goods. I do have, however, this hand,” and Tsigunis became suddenly aware of the sinews in his shoulder as they compressed in Xandr’s grasp. “With this hand, I could break your every bone, leaving you a mangled sample of humanity. Children would flee at the sight of you. I do have my sword, but I feel not like having to taint it with your remains. No, this hand will do. Keeping it far from you is all the payment you should need.”
Tsigunis did not relent, but became very nervous, and started to shake and stammer. “You cannot threaten me! I will shout out! The guards will come! We are a city of laws and the law is with me!”
Wrapping his fingers about the man’s throat, Xandr pushed him through the door. The room was small and dimly lit. Shelves with small jars lined the walls.
“Show me what my friend needs,” Xandr ordered. “Show me now!”
Scampering to his feet, the doctor reached for a small brown jar and handed it to the Ilmarin. Xandr did not immediately notice it, the root soaking in its own murky fluids, but memories soon materialized, of himself as a boy walking quietly through the mist of the Ilmarin wood. He remembered QuasiI schooling him in the names and purpose of every living thing that grew in the earth. Many of these could be eaten or be ground to enhance the taste of that which was eaten. Some were for healing, others never to be touched. Opening the jar, Xandr plucked a brownish root with many finger-like threads that ended in hooks like tiny red sickles. Curare root, he mouthed to himself, a good substance for hunting.
“This is what you have been giving him?” asked the Batal at last.
Tsiguni’s eyes narrowed to gashes, and he reminded Xandr very much of a snake man. “Why . . . yes.”
From outside the small pharmacy, the peasant couple watched as the door tore from its hinges, followed by the doctor landing with a thud. The Ilmarin was quick to follow him out, a terrible countenance about him. He stooped over Tsigunis and it looked as though he would tear the man to pieces. “What treachery is this!” he screamed. “What heinous trickery! . . . What loathsome greed!” Xandr stared at the husband with pity. “Poison!” he spat, “this man has been giving your wife poison! How did this come to be?”
Now the peasant looked wide-eyed with a new sense of horror. “W–We came to him one night, many eclipses ago, my wife with fever. He gave us this medicine . . . this root . . . for a small fee, told us to grind and mix it with water, said it was potent. She did get better, for a time, but later felt poorly. We kept returning for more of the–the root. It always seemed to help. I did not know . . .”
Xandr looked down at the apothecary, radiating hate. “I should tear out your eyes, one-by-one—I should—”
It was not a voice that he, or anyone, had expected to hear, and at first Xandr thought it to be Radia, the Princess of Mythradanaiil, Avatar of the Goddess, so soft and melodic it first seemed, but then he looked to see the ailing woman, who had pulled back her hood. The effects of her illness had yet to spoil her simple beauty. “Don’t hurt him,” she murmured.
His hands, hooked like talons, released, and Xandr could see the fear in Tsiguni’s eyes, and his hate subsided. “Why?” he asked. “Why should I let him live?”
“You are the Batal. Do not let this small man ruin us, make murderers of us.”
The Ilmarin stood slowly. “Your wisdom and compassion are matched only by the grace of Alashiya.” He turned to her husband. “What say you?”
“I am proud of the wife I have chosen, and I . . . I agree with her. Let this rat crawl back to the cesspools of Thetis. The gods will judge him.”
“But what of your wife?” Xandr asked. “How is she to be made well again? Is there no other apothecary in this city?”
“It is too late,” answered Tsigunis. “The curare has saturated her being. Nothing can stop it now. She will never recover.”
“No,” the woman declared, and she stretched out with feeble fingers, brushing the hem of Xandr’s kilt. “He has come as I have foreseen . . . the Batal will make me whole.”
“Please, woman,” said he, pulling away, “I have no power over illness or poison.”
“Ah, but I believe you do. I have seen you before, in my dreams. I believe.”
Thelana wandered through the bazaar of Thetis in a daze. Never had so many sights and sounds clashed for dominance against her consciousness. If she looked at any one thing for too long, it seemed, she might never get out. In the center square, where the streets branched away to different market areas, she came by a rug and two men with a fondness for serpents. One was an adept flutist, forming powerful and hypnotic tones through his gaita, a long trumpet-shaped instrument. The music was traditional to the region, known throughout the southern regions of the Endless Sea. It continued to play without beginning or end, an endlessly cyclical middle. Snakes were bundled on a rug like twigs, slithering between themselves, and the second man’s job was preventing their escape by herded them in his hands again and again. Passing too closely, the snake handler grabbed Thelana by the wrist. There was a long cobra about his arm, and he removed the simple round fez from his head to show her a stash of coins. He spoke the common tongue, but it was broken and heavily accented. “Touch cobra, is good luck.”
Thelana blinked. “What?”
“If no bite, good luck.” He jingled the coins in his hat.
“That’s quite all right, thank you.” The man did not appear to understand, or feigned ignorance, and in a polite attempt to escape, she freed her wrist with a strength surprising the snake handler and proceeded to another rug to accost another merchant. “Excuse me, do you know where I can find a money changer?”
The man smiled through a mustache that looked to be eating his face. A baboon ran along his arm hopping over to her shoulder. The simian was preferable to a cobra, so she let it gaze with curiosity at her face, exploring her nose and ears with its tiny hands. She did not expect how warm and human-like they would feel.
“Money,” the man said suddenly. “Give me money.”
Thelana looked at him perplexed. “Money . . . for what?”
“You touch baboon: twenty dirham.”
Before she could protest, a second baboon appeared atop her opposite shoulder, and there was another man with his fez awaiting coins. Frustrated, she shook herself free of the baboons, launching them to the floor, and pushed herself from the men attempting to block her path. “And they call me a thief!” she grumbled to herself. Not that she could have paid them anyway. All that she had in her possession were a few gems recovered from the ruins of the Septheran tombs, which had been safely stored in her stomach for quite some time.
Finally, she neared a man with a pen of yellow birds, tall as her waist, with beaks that could crush a watermelon. He was loudly displaying them as exotic baby ibs, but she was not so certain, never having known of any domesticated by humans. Only the fabled bird men of Nimbos had ever managed such a feat. Nonetheless, she was sure not to stray too closely, or make eye contact, lest she have giant birds pecking at her knees and men asking for more money.
She pushed through the throng of patrons at the mouth of another tented avenue. There were many, many things being sold in the bazaar. Offers were being shouted over alternate offers, and the sound of haggling over prices permeated every niche where sound might find purchase. Taken at once, the street was a mind-boggling kaleidoscope of colors and shapes, a diorama of beautifully ornate patterns with amorphous stacks of junk, a recess where planes, angles and curves functioned sometimes harmoniously, overlapped, or were consumed.
In a wide section of the street, Thelana’s eyes fixed on a single market, where weapons of bronze and silver were prominently displayed. Most were daggers, beautifully fashioned with minute detail, studded with semi-precious stones, pearls, topaz and lapis lazuli. Others were entirely of alabaster or ivory. Swords hung in rows above her, exotically crafted in “S”–shapes. She reached to examine them when her hand drifted to a rack of bows. But before she could ask for prices, her attention was diverted again, to a tall, attractive woman with hair of flowing red. What was most unusual was the woman’s attire. The redhead was laden in armor, with a saucer-shaped brazier cupping her breasts, a length of gold chain jangling between her thighs, and a pair of boots binding her feet and calves. Thelana was accustomed to battle with nothing but her Ilmarin hide before a bristling phalanx, but the purpose of this woman’s armor was beyond comprehension. Aside from an attack directed solely at her boob or womanhood, the woman was defenseless, her armor serving but to encumber her. With these thoughts, the woman turned to Thelana, appalled by her bemused stare.
“Why do you look at me so?”
The Ilmarin blushed. “I–I apologize. It’s just that I’ve never seen a . . . what are you supposed to be?”
“You dare mock me!” the woman shouted, and turned sharply, revealing the tall halberd in her hand. “I am a warrior maiden of Thetis, of the high-born warrior class!”
Thelana suppressed a laugh. “You’re no warrior . . . at least not a very good one.”
“You–!” her face creased with rage, “what would you know of war? Of battle?”
“More than you, I should hope, as I’m not wandering the streets in a preposterous costume like that!”
“You have insulted me for the last time, peasant! Apologize or be smitten!”
“I’ll do no such thing. I already gave you an apology. You don’t deserve another.”
The woman’s browsing hand flew to her weapon. “I’ll cut you down where you stand!”
Thelana, simultaneously, slipped a bundle from the pack at her shoulder, revealing a gleaming gold hilt. The redhead was a little more than taken aback, but remained steadfast.
“Let’s get away from all these people,” the Ilmarin added, “someone other than you might get hurt.”
Go back to Chapter 2
Move on to Chapter 4