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Extract from 'The Stone Vessel'

To any casual observer, strolling through the desert that day, the man laying face down in the sand might easily have resembled a pile of torn rags. He was dying. In fact, he’d been dying since his water ran out the previous day, and he’d lain motionless for several hours in that strange state of euphoria as the mind floats in the quiet, untroubled space between life and the hereafter. Random thoughts flickered through his consciousness. Memories of things done, not done, left unfinished. How he wished he'd paid more attention to his devotions to the gods! Perhaps this was retribution for some unconscious omission on his part? Perhaps they were seated in their winged, golden chairs looking down upon his suffering, using their powers to prolong the moment of his departing for their own entertainment? Yet, even now, with the life draining from him, he found himself unable to accept his fate. He struggled to rise to his feet, but the effort was too much. He collapsed and lay still. As he began to lose consciousness, his ears caught the soft crunching sound of feet on sand. Someone was coming! He forced his right arm to move, so he wouldn't be thought dead.

 

A strong hand lifted his head clear of the sand. There was a faint scent of jasmine, accompanied by the most pleasing female voice he had ever heard, “Can you sit?”

He struggled upright, with her assistance, and opened his eyes. They were dry and encrusted with grains of sand. He tried to speak, but his throat had closed, almost to the point of asphyxiation. She held the mouth of a bottle to his cracked lips and trickled water onto his swollen tongue, stopping the moment he started to gag. After several minutes, he was able to croak, “Are you the Goddess Inanna, that you pour the cool waters of the deep into my mouth?”

She stood, stretching the cramp from her knees. “I am no goddess,” she said, stiffly. “I am called Ianna [ee-anna].”

 

He drank more freely, now, feeling his grasp on life growing stronger. “I meant no insult,” he said nervously, only too aware of her piercing green eyes boring into his own.

Her expressionless, olive skinned, oval face was framed by the hood of an ankle length, long sleeved robe, made of a white woolen material with dyed orange stripes. Her fingers were long and capable, the nails short and unpainted. She wore numerous gold and silver bracelets on her wrists, and several gold necklaces. Beneath the robe, she wore a black leather leotard. Two bejeweled daggers in silver scabbards were pushed through a broad scarlet sash, wrapped around her waist. A black leather belt was intertwined with the sash with a bag slung from it. “I thought no such thing,” she said, earnestly. “Nor do I wish to claim godliness.”

He managed a weak smile. “You are wise. The gods are quick to punish those who would seek to impersonate them.”

“To seek to impersonate someone, one must first admire them,” she replied.

“You should be careful.” He looked skyward. “They hear everything.”

She followed his gaze, grinning. “Then, let them hear this.” She held her hands to her mouth, like a megaphone, and yelled, “You are nothing but the imaginings of superstitious fools.”

He felt uplifted by her outburst - but only for a moment. Soon, fear and uncertainty returned. He took another long drink and handed her the bottle.

“Keep it,” she said.

“Have you no need of water?” he asked, clutching the bottle tightly against his chest.

She pulled the cowl from her head and let the hot breeze ruffle her long black hair. A thin gold band adorned her forehead. Her tone suggested indifference as she asked, “Where were you going?”

“Ashur.”

Nineveh is closer.”

“What I seek lies in Ashur.”

Her eyes scanned the few belongings he hadn't discarded. “You won't reach it without something to eat.”

“I have nothing left,” he admitted.

“Then you are a fool.”

“I traveled in haste.”

“More in hope,” she opined. “I suppose I’m to feed you as well as save your worthless life?”

His eyes widened in anticipation of a feast. “You have food?”

“Of course I have food,” she said, reaching into the bag slung from her belt, “I’m no fool.” She threw him a piece of dry bread. He devoured it and waited for more. She threw him another morsel, released the bag from her belt and dropped it on the sand beside him. She turned away and began to walk. After a few paces, she turned and said, in a scarcely audible voice, “Fool!” The breeze caught the hem of her robe, exposing her right leg. He caught his breath at the sight of her lightly tanned upper thigh. The rest of her leg, from above the knee to her foot, was encased in some kind of soft leather boot, held in place by bindings which crisscrossed from ankle to thigh.

“Are you, a woman, of the warrior caste?” he asked, incredulously.

“No,” she replied, ignoring the sexist implication of the question, “a traveler.” She turned her back on him and strode off.

He got to his feet and set out after her, driven to follow his savior. As he reached the top of the drift, he raised his hand to shield his eyes and searched the dunes. She had disappeared!

 

The door sighed open, revealing a cramped and cluttered cabin. Suki sat slumped in one of three couches, one leather-clad leg draped over the arm, swinging to and fro. For the most part, her body was covered in human skin, but there were scales on both cheeks and the sides of her neck, graduating to light brown skin just above her breasts, half exposed by the deep 'v' of the leotard, which suggested a reptilian ancestry. Scales ran from the nape of her neck to the base of her spine. Her facial features, however, were clearly feline, with yellow-hued eyes and a broad nose, while her head was covered with long flowing red hair, streaked with silver. She leaned to one side, picked up a metal dish and placed it on her lap, stirring its contents with a long index finger as she studied Ianna with a quizzical expression. “Your visit went well?” she asked, hissing the ‘s’ in ‘visit’ through clenched teeth.

Ianna frowned. “So much has changed.”

“You found your parents’ tomb?”

Ianna nodded. “It was badly damaged during the last attack. Some say it was the Hurrians, others, the Mitanni. Whoever did it, fires still burn in parts of the city.”

Suki held the dish close to her chest and inspected its contents carefully. Having made her choice, she hooked it with her finger, lifted it high, tilted her head backwards, closed her eyes and lowered the writhing delicacy into her mouth. Ianna felt a wave of revulsion pass over her as Suki wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. She smacked her lips noisily. “We should not come again,” she said.

“Do you have to eat like that?” Ianna demanded.

By way of an answer, Suki selected another wriggling morsel and lowered it into her mouth. This time, however - as if to demonstrate her concern for Ianna’s sensibilities - she picked up a tissue and wiped her mouth with exaggerated dabbing movements. She offered Ianna the bowl with a sly smile.

Ianna removed her robe, threw it at the spare couch and sat down. “What time are we scheduled to return?”

"In less than day,” Suki replied. “If you're ready, we can leave now and take our time.”

“I’m ready,” Ianna said, her voice laden with sadness.

Suki swung her leg off the arm and twisted the couch around to face the control panel. Her long fingers, scaled on the back, caressed the touch sensitive keypad with practiced movements. A soft whine grew in volume until the cabin vibrated gently. “Strap in,” she ordered.

Ianna had a sudden thought and got to her feet. “Wait! There’s something I need to do, first.” She picked up a metal box, containing food supplements, collected a plastic water bottle, filled it from the reservoir and went quickly to the door, hitting the ‘release’ with the palm of her hand.

Outside, the man saw the air shimmer and part, as if a knife had sliced vertically through it several meters above his head. Ianna’s head and shoulders appeared, followed by her left arm as she threw the box towards him. It landed in the sand at his feet, followed by the water bottle. “Safe journey, fool,” she called, and ducked out of sight. She closed the door and strapped herself into her couch. “Okay,” she said, “let’s go!”

 

The man fell to his knees and began to pray.

 

 
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