Content Warning: Live burial, assault, violence, oppression, drowning, description of violence
The tomb reached up to swallow him as they lowered him inch by inch into its black depths. Watching the faces of his dearest friends and neighbors recede, obscured ever more by the brilliance of the sun, from whose reach he was slipping away forever, he felt a dull, immobilizing panic clawing at his chest. He glanced down into the darkness, terror rising up into his throat as his eyes fell upon the many bones carpeting the floor of the cave. They glimmered in the faint light that fell upon them from the mouth of the tomb—and upon the twisted and mangled limbs of his wife’s body lying where they had cast it from above.
Arrayed in her finest clothes and most beloved jewels and adornments, she looked at once both more lovely than he had ever seen her and also strange beyond recognition with her features slack and the vivacity of her form stilled. Her presence nonetheless emboldened him to endure the remainder of his descent with stoic dignity, unheeding of the mortal fear still lingering on the horizon of his consciousness.
He knew what was expected of him, and as his feet came to rest in the soft sand below, he began untying the rope from his waist, then called up to those who waited in the world now beyond, “Farewell, my friends.”
The rope slithered upward with tantalizing languor, and he fought the urge to seize it at the last, to cling to life; but even here, no longer at the threshold of death but in its very dwelling place, he retained enough pride to restrain the impulse. The rope disappeared into the blurred sea of faces above, and he let his eyes drink in this last glimpse of light before the great boulder began to grind back into place over the mouth of the tomb. It fell with a resounding thud as unseen hands let it fall into its place, and its echoes seemed to dance about him long after his reason assured him they had faded into silence.
Alone in the darkness, he staved off despair and madness by doing what he must in any case: groping toward his wife’s body, he straightened her limbs as best he could and arranged her with greater dignity in a small clearing he made among the bones. When he had laid her folded hands upon her stomach and bestowed one last kiss upon her cold lips, he replaced the veil over her face and sat down beside her. Only then, as he softly caressed her hands and wrists, did he allow grief and fear to overtake him at last.
With tears pouring from his eyes, he opened his mouth in a cry of lament, but that cry died upon his lips as a hand seized his chin from behind and pulled it upward. The cold blade of a knife swept up his exposed throat to rest under his jaw.
Already poised at the very edge of panic, he responded quicker than thought. Reaching up with both arms and grasping his assailant by the shoulders, he jerked forward to send the knife-wielder flying over his own head. With a cry of surprise, the attacker slammed into the wall of the cave. The bones rattled on the floor as the other man leapt up, and he scrambled backward to avoid the renewed assault that must surely be coming, but when no further sounds betrayed his enemy’s position, he grew still again, straining his ears for some sign of danger.
“You are strong,” said a soft voice from the darkness. “What is your profession?”
“I make—made weapons for the household of the king,” he said, only a hint of bewilderment and fear in his voice.
“So,” said the voice, then paused. “And you have some ration of food to sustain you in this pit, as seems to be the custom?”
“Yes,” he said and, growing bolder, returned a question of his own. “But who are you to be down here, alive, and a foreigner in this land?”
“You would not believe my story if you heard it,” said the stranger, with a short gasp of a laugh.
“Tell it to me anyway,” he said. “Better a story I won’t believe than to dwell upon how we must starve to death in this pit. Then, when you have told me your tale, you can take my life as you planned, quickly.”
“No, I don’t think I will do that,” said the other. “But we have time for a short tale, wondrous beyond comprehension though it may seem to you.”
He heard more rustling and divined that his companion had sat down on the floor of the cave. He likewise settled himself in the sand, sweeping aside the bones that nestled about him as the stranger began to speak once more.
"Know, then, my brother in this half-death, that I have long been a wanderer, traveling from place to place, never resting or finding a home for myself but always seeking out some new challenge or adventure to stave off the weariness of this life. Some little time ago, tiring of dwelling among other men—whose days are so often filled with meaningless and selfish pursuits—I left the great city and traversed the desert. I roamed long in solitude, meeting only a few other travelers who desired peace. At last I descried, in the distance, the peaks of the mountains jutting up from the sand. I made for them, having been driven nearly to the edge of sanity by the unchanging, endless sand and longing for the feel of a cold wind on my face.
"Reaching the feet of the nearest mountain, I began to ascend, and ever as I climbed I felt my spirits rise with me. When I reached the summit, I rejoiced in the name of God to be so close to the heavens and to breathe the fresh air that drifted down from the clouds. It renewed my limbs after the dryness and the heat of the plains, and for a long time I stood with my eyes closed, letting my other senses enjoy the change in climate, free from the distraction of the scenery.
"When at long last I opened my eyes, I marveled to see below me, far beneath my feet, but still high up on the other side of the mountain, a city built upon its slopes. A great wall ran all about it, enclosing it on three sides, with the cliff face of the mountain as its rear defense, but within it was vast, rich, and mighty.
"I descended quickly, with eager but stumbling feet. I have always gone where I wished, unobserved if need be, and soon I found myself once more walking the streets of men. I was no longer reluctant to mix with others of my kind, but curious to know more of the fortress built so high and guarded in a solitude of its own. I soon learned what I wished, and the story of the enclosed city and its wall is perhaps the strangest part of my tale.
"At one time—as I learned—the king of the city had been betrayed by his closest advisor, who had through his treachery allowed a neighboring army to penetrate uncontested into the very heart of the palace. The invaders had been routed and sent fleeing from the city, but only at great cost of life and destruction of property, and the king himself had only narrowly escaped death. Since then, he had built the encircling wall I had seen from above, and had shut the gates, decreeing that no one would enter or leave the city, upon pain of death, so fearful was he that treachery might one day bring about his downfall.
"Nonetheless, a few brave souls still defied him, creeping in and out of the city by night, and this is how they accomplished such a feat without discovery: one among them, a very learned individual, had long studied the flight and anatomy of the birds and other winged creatures and had learned how to construct wings that would carry a man up into the sky. Others, being enchanted by the idea of soaring among the clouds, and desperate for some glimpse of the world beyond their walls, copied these designs and built wings of their own. Scaling up the cliffs under cover of night, they would leap with their wings into the very wind, which carried them far away, often even to distant countries—though none so far or so lofty as the one who had designed the wings at first.
"After some time in the city, I gained the friendship of this Aviator, who at long last, after much entreating, agreed to take me aloft one night. Well I remember that first thrill of fear and excitement in my bones as we climbed the side of the mountain in the chill midnight, carrying the various parts of our crafted bird’s wings. The half-moon shone down on us, and our dark silhouettes stretched far down the mountain as we assembled the wings, which the Aviator had designed specially to carry two bodies instead of one. With the Aviator in the position of pilot to guide and manipulate our craft while I rode behind as a mere passenger, we waited for just the right shift in the winds to carry us up. My heart was in my mouth as the Aviator cried out, ‘Now!’ and we leapt from the heights out into nothingness.
"Then my heart stopped entirely as we dropped down, but at once the wind picked us up and blew us aloft, high above the peaks, so that we soared away into the sky.
"We flew together all that night, gazing down upon the surrounding lands as God himself must see them, and not for many a long year had I felt within myself such a burst of joy and the thrill of being alive. I never tired of feeling the rushing air on my face or seeing the countryside below flicker by in the moonlight, not though the hours flew past us like the clouds. At last my friend said we must turn back toward home. When my feet came to rest on the earth once more, I wept and bowed to the ground, more in love with this world than I could ever remember being, but all the more desperate also to return to the air again.
"Long we flew together, traveling farther and farther afield and remaining in the air for greater stretches of time, always seeking new lands and new sights, until we would be aloft for a whole night and a whole day after, one full cycle of the sun. Not daring to take much weight into our craft, we carried little to eat or drink, but we sustained ourselves with the exhilaration of discovery and adventure. Every time we landed on the mountaintop once more, my heart would grow heavier and heavier at the thought of descending back into the prison city below, and I began to beg the Aviator to take us up with greater and greater frequency, daring to escape the walls again and again despite the growing vigilance of the king and the city guards.
"One night, as we labored up the side of the mountain bearing the cargo that would soon bear us, we heard a cry from below, and we saw that we had been spotted by one of the lookouts on the wall. Knowing that we would soon be pursued, and that our very lives depended on not being caught outside the walls of the city, we hastened up to the familiar cliff and began hastily assembling the wings. The moon blazed full, giving us light to work by so that we had soon completed the task, but I knew that it also betrayed our position, drawing the guards inexorably to us. As we took our stand at the edge of the cliff, feeling out the wind for our soonest opportunity to escape, we heard the feet of the soldiers running across the bare rock behind. I glanced behind and saw determination glinting on their faces in the white light, and I knew that we had only seconds in which to act.
"The Aviator called out to me, ‘It is this wind or none for us. Shall I take the chance?’
"‘Go!’ I cried, and we leaped away into the void below. Looking back as we fell, I saw the guards clustering about the edge of the cliff, a look of triumph on the face of the foremost as he watched us falling—so he thought—to our deaths. Then, as the Aviator shifted to catch the fresh blast of wind that came rushing up from beneath us, we soared high once more. I laughed aloud to see the guard’s countenance fall. Flying away into the night sky, we left them to stumble back down the mountain in defeat.
"‘Praise be to God,’ I cried out, for a felt a rush of jubilation at our escape. ‘There is none in heaven but him!’
"‘They know us now,’ the Aviator called back to me against the wind. ‘We can never return.’
"‘Not while the king lives,’ I said.
"Putting that gloomy thought from our minds, we flew through the night, always in a straight line, toward the south, putting as much distance as possible between ourselves and the city that would not now admit us back. When morning came, we were looking down upon the sea, watching the waves toss and shift, reaching up us as if to pull us down into the vast depths below.
"‘Where shall we go?’ the Aviator asked, but I only shook my head, for I knew not what we should do or where we might find a haven.
"Journeying on, we began to pass over scattered islands, clustered together into inhabited lands or standing alone and empty, but each rich with fruit-bearing trees and springs of fresh water. I began to think once more of escape from the world of men, of taking refuge with my friend on one of these uninhabited rocks and living out our days free from such tyranny as we had left behind in the walled city.
"As I was musing upon this idea, we passed over another solitary island, and, looking down, I saw people clustered together at the feet of a small mountain. Although they were far below us, I saw that they were bearing a corpse with them, and I watched as they rolled away a great stone from the mouth of a pit that opened down into the mountain’s roots. At the bottom of this pit, littered among the bones of the other dead, lay many rich objects of gold and silver, and many jewels that had once adorned their living owners before they had been cast down into the grave. The vast treasure glittered in the high light of the sun, bewildering my eyes. I released my grip on the frame of our sky-craft to lean out into the wind, holding on with one hand as I gazed down at more wealth than I had seen in any of my travels.
Then I marveled, for after throwing down the body of the dead man, they lowered a woman in after him by rope. She was holding a few small loaves of bread and an earthen jug, and with such provision they left her, replacing the stone over the mouth of the tomb."
At this point, the stranger broke off the story, and a rustling and scraping came from the darkness, as if he was standing up once more. “Do you wish to live?” the stranger asked. “Follow me, and you can escape from this prison of death.”
The bereft husband heard his assailant pass by him, kicking aside the scattered bones as he went, and he likewise rose and turned, but answered, “Maybe you know nothing of honor in your country, but I will not desert my own.”
“I have no country,” said the stranger, halting and turning back toward him. “And will you feel the same way when your sanity begins to desert you as you starve to death? Will your honor sustain you as you stare into the face of eternity?”
Words failed him, and the other took a step toward him, lowering his voice. “Your wife has no need of your company in Paradise, my friend. You can do nothing to improve her lot by dying needlessly. There is no honor in death, whatever you have been told.”
After another pause, in which he struggled to put words to his confused thoughts, the stranger added, “Dishonor cannot come from your friends and family who delivered you up to this fate; we are leaving them behind. Only I will know your shameful secret, and you will never hear a word of judgment from me. Come.”
In such a commanding tone had the stranger issued this instruction that he found himself stumbling along in pursuit as the stranger retreated further into the cave.
Despite the blackness of the tomb, the stranger seemed to know exactly where their path lay, and he followed the sound of the stranger’s footsteps shuffling through the sand. As they groped along in the dark, the stranger resumed his tale, his voicing bouncing off the walls of what seemed to be a tunnel that branched away from the tomb.
"You who have lived with this custom since birth have accepted it, but I felt only horror at discovering a people who buried the living with the dead. Glad I was to pass over this mountain and see it block the morbid ceremony from my sight, and still gladder to once more pass back over the open sea, away from a land of such barbarism. Still, I could not resist casting one glance behind, feeling a pang of grim sympathy for the widow who had been abandoned to death by her own neighbors. I turned as our craft sped on into the sky, and at that moment a mighty gust of wind swept over us. I had let go my grip on the wing with one hand to look back over my shoulder, and I was caught off guard by the force of the blast. It carried me away with it, flinging me out into the open air, and I fell at once toward the water. I scarcely had time to be afraid before the waves closed over me, and the sun was blotted out before my eyes as I plunged down, far into the depths.
"I fought my way back to the surface, and my heart quickened as my head burst through the waves once more, but we had already passed far from the land. I struck out toward the shore, and after what seemed weary hours of struggling against the currents and tides, I cast myself upon the sand. When I had regained my breath, I rolled over and looked up into the sky. There, swooping down from the clouds, diving perilously low toward me, was the Aviator, waving to me from above. I sat up and waved my arm in response, and then I watched as the craft rose once more and flew away into the distance. My heart sank as it dwindled above the horizon and finally disappeared back in the direction from which we had come.
"Willing myself not to despair, I rose and brushed the sand from my clothes, then turned toward the mountain under which you and I now find ourselves stranded. It came into my mind that I would enter this tomb with all its vast, accumulated wealth and turn this temporary misfortune to my advantage.
"I searched all about its slopes, seeking another way in than that by which you entered, and the day slipped away without any success. When the sun had begun to sink in the West, I thought of finding a place to lie for the night, but suddenly a shift in the twilight shadows showed me a small opening in the rock, only a hand’s breadth in size, but leading back into emptiness beyond. I could only reach in with my arm, for a great boulder was blocking any further access, and I could not move or even grip it with my hands—it was too large and smooth.
"Despairing at last of gaining access by this route, and with night coming on, I seized upon a new idea for how I might discover a way not only in but out of this tomb. The night creatures had begun to emerge, so I caught myself a large rat—I have always been skilled at charming animals to my whims—and tied a small strip of cloth to its leg, torn from my own garments. Then I pushed it through the small opening I had found and lay down to await the dawn.
“When morning came, I rose at once and made my way around to the far side of the mountain, to the mouth of this tomb. The great stone that covered the opening offered little challenge to my strength, and I lifted it away, looking down into the black depths below. There, among the many rotting corpses, was my friend the rat, still wearing my token as he feasted among the dead. The stone weighed heavy on my arms as I held it up, so I summoned my courage and cast myself down into the cave. I heard the stone slam shut above me, plunging me into darkness as I crashed down among the fresh bodies and skeletons below.”
“What is that?” the mourner cried suddenly, interrupting the stranger’s story, for far ahead, so small that he might have imagined it in the gloom and deprivation of their surroundings, glimmered a small point of light.
“Haven’t you been listening to my tale?” said the stranger. They continued forward, and the pinprick of light grew ever brighter and larger, until he began to see vague shapes around him: the walls of the tunnel, the sand shifting beneath their feet, and the silhouette of his guide before him, a smaller, slighter figure than he had imagined in the dark. As they neared the source of the light, he saw that it emanated from a fissure in the rock, only a little higher than his shoulder, and in a sudden desperation he rushed past his companion and scrambled up to raise his face to the opening, so starved for light had even his short sojourn in the tomb rendered him.
Looking out, he saw the mountain sloping down toward the beach, only a short distance away. The waves lapping against the sand seemed to beckon to him, speaking of freedom—from death, from imprisonment, even from sorrow.
Turning in a frenzy of anticipation to the stranger behind him, he cried out, “But how—”
His unfinished question faded into the darkness as he realized that his guide, standing a few feet back from him with an expression of mingled amusement and exasperation, was a woman. The soft yellow light filtering into the cave illuminated her features and her compact, muscular frame, clothed in a man’s garments, which her travails among the waves and beneath the mountain had stained and torn nearly into rags.
“How will we get out?” she asked, finishing his question. “That is exactly why I have brought you here.”
Approaching the great boulder that blocked their exit, she rested her shoulder against it, drew in a deep breath of air, and pushed. As he had almost expected, the boulder did not even tremble, but her feet slid backward, the sand shifting beneath her.
“You see?” she said, standing straight again. “The sand is too slippery to gain a solid foothold. I failed to consider that when I planned my escape from this pit. Without your arrival, I might have been stuck here forever. Already I have been here three days and nights, and I had to kill the poor woman I found still alive when I first entered.”
He gasped, briefly speechless in his horror. “You killed—”
“Cut her throat,” said the woman. “Better than starving to death, and I didn’t know how long I might be trapped here. She was too weak to aid in our escape, but you are strong. Here.”
She beckoned to him in the half-light, walking back toward the tunnel they had just left and pausing at its mouth. “But I am not strong enough to move that rock,” he protested. “Even both of us together couldn’t do it. You might as well have killed me, as you planned—as I asked. I don’t want to starve in this place, either, so close, so close to the light, taunting us—”
“Pay attention,” she snapped, interrupting his growing hysteria. “You were ready to die in the name of your honor only a few moments ago, and now you lose heart at one setback? Look: this wall is close to the boulder, but not close enough for me to brace against. You stand with your back to mine, and raise your legs to brace your feet on the wall. I will push, and you will keep me from sliding backward.”
She took up her position against the rock, and he, growing calm again as she laid out these brief instructions, arranged himself as she directed. With his feet resting against the cold, unmoving rock of the cave wall, he felt the muscles of her back contract against his as she prepared to push.
“I still don’t know—” he began, but without heeding his objection she thrust with all her strength against the boulder.
Despite his own size and strength, the force of her effort nearly collapsed his knees, and he pushed back with every ounce of muscle in his quaking legs and back. She, recognizing that he had now solidified his position and hers thereby, drove her shoulder even harder into the obstacle before them, exerting such force upon his limbs that he felt sure his legs must crack or his knees be broken inward. Then, just as he was preparing to collapse with exhaustion, he fell backward onto her, and a rush of light blinded him as the boulder tumbled away, thundering down the mountainside into the sea beyond.
Struggling out from beneath him, his companion brushed the sand from her clothes as she stood up. Legs shaking, he clambered up to join her, then rushed outside into the broad light of day, the fresh wind from the sea billowing up to embrace him. He leaped into the tide and let the waves cover him, washing away the stench of death and the rotting corpse-flesh that still clung to him. Then, rising from the water, he turned back to address the stranger, only to find that she had not followed him out of the cave.
At first he thought that she had vanished altogether, leaving him as alone and free as she had found him alone and imprisoned, but then she appeared from within the mouth of the tunnel, backing into the sunlight as she pulled behind her a great bundle nearly the size of the boulder they had removed in their escape. Striding back up the beach with renewed vigor, he joined her at the opening of the cave and helped her drag the bundle out onto the open sand.
“What is this?” he asked, when she had finally let their burden rest and cast herself down on the sand beside it.
For answer, she twitched open one corner of the bundle, which he now saw had been fashioned from a patchwork of fine clothes tied together by their corners. One side of this mesh fell away, revealing a glittering pile of riches—the vast trove of treasure accumulated over centuries in the tomb they had just escaped.
Looking down at the mound of jewels, decorative weapons, gold and silver dishes and furnishings, and works of pure craft and beauty, he felt a knot of revulsion gather in his throat. “You rob the dead?” he croaked, forcing back the nausea. “All this only to defile the resting place of my friends, my family, my neighbors—my wife? Oh, my wife,” he cried, and he began to weep, suddenly remembering where he had left her. “Have you no reverence, no sense of decency about you, that—”
“The dead have no need of riches,” she said. “They are with God. You and I are alive, and we must make our way in the world yet a while. Why leave these things with the dead when we can make use of them?”
“Only a grave robber,” he sobbed, shaking his head. “All your talk of adventure, of escape from the world—and you are so strong! You only want to save yourself; you could have saved that widow, but you killed her—killed her for her food, so you could stay alive—”
“I didn’t need food,” she interjected in a soft voice, but he paid no attention.
“Killed her for her wealth, and her husband’s wealth. All these riches, and what will you do with them? Idle and enjoy yourself, and spend your days in the sky, doing no one any good? Someone like you—you could change… everything. You could alter things as you see fit!”
Turning away, she lay back down on the sand and closed her eyes. “I did you some good,” she said, without rancor. “No go, fetch your rations out of the tomb—the food they left you to ease you into death. Say your farewell to your wife, and come share a meal with me. Tomorrow we will leave this place and have plenty to eat.”
He stared at her in horrified disbelief for a moment, then turned, shaking his head, and retreated back into the tomb.
When he emerged, drying his tears and clutching a small jar of water and the few cakes of bread, the stranger was still lying on the sand where he left her, but her eyes were open, and she was staring up into the sky, for the light was fading. Sitting down beside her, he handed her one of the cakes without meeting her eyes, and she took it from him in silence. They ate and drank together in silence, until, taking one last mouthful of water and handing the jar back to him, she looked up into the sky, shielding her eyes against the sun.
“Look,” she said, pointing upward toward the clouds. Following her gesture, he looked up and saw, far overhead, a small shape like a large bird, gliding and turning above them, then wheeling away out across the sea.
“The Rukh,” he whispered to himself, and she turned to look at him.
“The Rukh,” he muttered, dropping his eyes to the sand in his embarrassment. “The great bird, huge as a castle, that dwells far away across the sea. Its wings are like a ship’s sails, and it lays eggs as big as houses.”
When she showed no sign of recognition at this description, he shrugged and hugged his knees to his chest. “It is only a legend, I’m sure. Didn’t your grandmother tell you stories about it?”
She shook her head, then went back to watching the bird as it flew away, disappearing into the distance. Then she lay back down on the sand once more.
“Sleep,” she told him. “We have a long journey ahead of us.”
Darkness was fast falling about them, so he did as she advised, scooping together a small pile of sand on which to rest his head, then closing his eyes and struggling to quiet the chaos of his thoughts. Gradually, he fell asleep, but he woke often throughout the night, coming out of the darkness of his mind with a start of terror, imagining the tomb closing about him once more. Each time he woke, he saw the stranger sitting up next to him, working at something she held in her hands, but which he could not discern in the darkness. Too exhausted to express any further curiosity, he closed his eyes again and gave himself up to more dreams of death and imprisonment beneath the earth, to images of his wife’s face, at first beautiful and full of life, then gradually decaying and crumbling away into dust before his eyes and just beyond his reach.
The last of these nightmares dissolved into daylight as he woke for the last time, looking up into a clear blue sky. Pressing his fingers into his eyes to rid them of the last remnants of sleep, he sat up and gazed out at the sea.
The waves had grown calm since the night before, and only a soft breeze blew upon his face. He closed his eyes again, letting the feel of the salt air on his skin blow away the horror and misery of his dreams and soothe his grief, and he drew in several deep breaths before leaping to his feet and looking around for his companion.
She had vanished once more, but he found he could muster little anxiety for her whereabouts. Instead, he looked out across the waves, and his heart quickened within him as he saw, far away on the horizon, a tiny sail waving white in the breeze and—unless his eager eyes deceived him—drawing closer to the very beach upon which he stood.
Wild with mingled joy and fear, he began waving his arms and jumping up and down up on the sand, shouting with all the breath in his lungs to the crew of the small boat, gesticulating and screaming with utter disregard for dignity. The boat drifted ever nearer, but with maddening leisure, so that he could never feel sure from one moment to the next whether it had grown any larger. Leaving nothing to chance, he continued to shout and wave, dancing about the beach in a madness of desperate exuberance.
“There’s no need,” said a voice behind him as his own temporarily failed him and he paused to renew his strength. “It is coming for us.”
He turned to see the stranger standing behind him, but he still lacked breath to question her confidence, so he turned back toward the boat. It had indeed grown larger, and he could even make out a single occupant sitting at the rudder, guiding the small craft over the intervening waves. Even as he watched, the pilot thrust an arm into the air and waved, and he waved back. Over his shoulder, he saw that the stranger was also waving, wearing the first smile he had ever witnessed on her countenance.
When the boat had neared the shore, the stranger waded out into the water to meet it, and she seized the boat by the prow and towed it ashore without saying a word to the occupant, a small woman with pale skin and light brown hair who leaped from her seat and splashed into the water alongside the stranger.
When they had dragged the boat onto the sand the pilot threw her arms around the stranger, hugging her close and crying out, “It is so good to find you well, my friend!”
“And you,” said the stranger, her face resting against the crown of the other’s head. “I have seldom felt so despondent as when I had to watch you fly away from this island.”
“But you knew I would come back,” cried the Aviator, releasing her friend and looking up into her face. “You couldn’t think—”
“Of course I knew,” said the stranger. She turned away from the Aviator and gestured toward the pile of treasure she had retrieved from the tomb. “And I have made good use of my time, you see.”
“Of course you have,” laughed the Aviator. She strode to the pile and began loading her arms with its wealth. “And who is your friend?” she asked, as she began a return trip to the boat to deposit her burden.
“Oh,” said the stranger, with an expression he could not quite decipher. “We never—I don’t know,” she admitted, as she gathered up her own armful of treasure.
“Your servant’s name is Asif,” he said, bowing to the Aviator, who had turned back from the boat to look at him. She smiled, and he smiled back, then volunteered, “It means ‘forgiveness.’”
At this, the stranger looked up, pausing as she dropped her newfound riches into the boat to stare at him with knitted eyebrows. Then, straightening up again, she made her way back toward the pile on the beach.
Gathering courage despite her standoffish manner, Asif continued, “And I would be honored to know the name of my rescuer.”
The stranger made no response, but the Aviator shot a questioning glance at her. For reply, the stranger only shrugged.
“Her name is Sinbad,” said the Aviator. Then, with a wicked light in her eyes, she added, “It doesn’t mean anything.”
“It doesn’t have to,” said Sinbad, marching back toward the boat with a lifetime’s wealth in her arms.
With a sudden realization as he watched her carry her irreverently-gotten wealth, Asif asked, “What happened to all the clothes? Why are you carrying everything piecemeal like this?”
“Well,” said Sinbad, dropping her cargo into the boat, “I considered your words, and it did seem as though I could do more good with my time here than only to save your honorable self.”
She nodded toward the mouth of the cave, and he glimpsed a small flash of color flickering in the breeze on the sand. Taking a few steps toward it, he saw that it represented only the tail end of a rope—a makeshift string of garments knotted end-to-end and leading back into the tunnel from which he and his companion had emerged the previous day.
“It leads back to the tomb,” she added, returning to the dwindling pile of treasure. “So others can find their way out, if they choose.”
With a burst of gratitude swelling inside his chest, Asif turned to look at his friend, but she avoided his gaze and continued to fill her arms with a growing stack of silver plates. Striding over to her, he began to pick up pieces of the treasure one by one, slowly at first.
The three of them made trip after trip back and forth to the shore, until all the wealth had been transferred into the tiny boat, which Asif now considered to be perilously full and heavy.
“What now?” he asked, looking at Sinbad as she straightened up for the last time and stretched her back with weariness.
Sinbad looked at the Aviator, who smiled again. “A third of this wealth belongs to you, my friend,” said the Aviator. “And you can sail away with us, wherever we may go. If you don’t like our company, we can set you down at any likely port you desire, and you can live out your days a rich and free man.”
“Or,” said Sinbad, “You can come with us back to our own city.”
The Aviator’s head jerked upward to look at her friend, who smiled to see the unabashed hope in her eyes.
“I have lost my stomach for imprisonment,” Sinbad continued, looking back at Asif again. “And you made a speech about changing everything? Let’s break down the doors of one more prison, at least.”