The stars hang low in the sky, diamond shimmers reflecting the glinting flecks of the glittering black sand.
The dark horse stamps and shakes its head, disturbing the disintegrating tangles at its neck, setting sway to the putrescent flesh hanging in strips from the bleached-white bones. It lips the ground, snorts, breathes boredom in grunts and sighs. It is the only break in the stillness.
In the distance, the object of our intent.
“We will reach the tower tomorrow,” Abd Al-Raquib says, “or perhaps the day after.”
He sits on the ground, cross-legged, like a caliph at court, richly arrayed in muted tones of peacock and carnelian, trimmed round with golden thread, or perhaps they are only gray and black.
The dark, desert sands stretch away into the dark, deserted night, the one flowing up to meet the other flowing down, kept from becoming one vast nothing only by the ever-present tower in the distance.
So close; so close at last. If I stretch out my hand, I can almost hold it. I can taste victory. We’ll complete the quest: slay the dragon, rescue the maiden. Riches, fortune, fame, our names sung from the pinnacles. Glory. Honor. All shall be ours.
I sleep. I dream of the tower. I climb the stairs winding round the casement walls to stand on the ramparts. The faithless winds whip around me, icy talons ripping at my skin, my clothes, my hair. I slide one foot forward, then another, until I am balanced at the edge. The desert sands waver and dance, become dark spots before my eyes. The glints of quartzy sand in the darkness are the reflected lights from the village spread beneath me. One more step and I will be free. I will plummet and fall, up through the murky depths of the water, kick and swim my way to the surface and climb the moss-slicked stones of the well to emerge in the light once more.
Abd Al-Raquib holds the horses’ bridles, waiting for me to rise. I stand and mount. We ride without stopping, our eyes ever fixed on the tower, the dark, glittering continuum of trackless desert and ceaseless sky otherwise unbroken. Our horses’ footfalls are swallowed by the sand.
We stop for the night. The stars hang low in the sky, so close I can almost touch them. They press down, cold and oppressive, their arrangement unfamiliar. I don’t know these skies; I don’t recognize the constellations.
“We’ll reach the tower tomorrow,” Abd Al-Raquib says, “or the day after.”
When we reach the tower, such a cry will go up. Two hero knights returning home from Alarcos, returning home from war. Alphonso himself will throw open the nail-studded gates, welcoming us home with open arms. He shall lead us to his table, to sit at his right and his left. He will pour out the wine — rich and red and smooth as silk — with his own hands, have the pages set the succulents at our board, draw the tales from our lips, clap us on our backs, declare us valiants and protectors of the realm. The minstrel lutes will begin to play, and there will be cheers and shouts.
I sleep. I dream. At last, I approach the tower — the journey’s end. The tower rises before me. It glistens, dark and strange, its crenelated parapet a hungry mouth waiting to devour. A hundred steps from the tower’s gate, my horse crumbles beneath me, turned once more to sand. On foot, I continue, the diamond glints turned to long-buried bones, honed and sharped by the shifting sands of time. They slice and shred my bare flesh as I pass over them. The black desert swallows up the blood. I reach the door, push it open. The wood, so solid a moment before, crumbles at my touch. The tower walls, so thick and strong, begin to shudder and groan and with a roar crumble into dust. I catch the sleeting darkness in my hands, try to hold it up, try to stop the fall.
Abd Al-Raquib holds the bridles. I rise, shake the sand from my faded tatters. I mount. We ride.
We stop for the night.
“We shall reach the tower tomorrow,” Abd Al-Raquib says, “or the day after.”
Terri Bruce is the author of two published paranormal/contemporary fantasy novels, Hereafter (Afterlife #1) and Thereafter (Afterlife #2). Her short story, “The Lady and the Unicorn” will appear in the New Hampshire Pulp Fiction Series Volume 6, Live Free or Dragons anthology (Plaidswede Publishing, Fall 2016). She currently resides in a haunted house in New England with her husband and three cats.