In a dark land of sand and sorcery, one woman takes up her staff to defy the dictates of tradition and break a terrible curse.
Shaalaraharrah was once the favored daughter of a sultan, trained in the art of martial dance. Then (the stories claim), she disobeyed her father and was transformed into a fountain as punishment, doomed to stand alone in his gardens forever, weeping for her folly. In truth, she has become simply Shaala, a warrior wandering the desert in search of a way to lift her curse–one that turned her not into literal stone, but which made her both impervious to pain and incapable of experiencing pleasure. In the land of the River People, she becomes embroiled in a dispute between desert tribes and meets a young man who might be able to break her curse at last–but at a terrible cost.
Another of the red-turbaned men faced Shaala, no doubt thinking she was allied with their scimitar-wielding prey. The man glared at her from over a thick mustache and braided beard, his sword at the ready, and she knew she’d have no opportunity to disabuse him of the notion.
Instead she set herself, staff held lightly in front of her as her feet shifted for balance on the treacherous sand, waiting for his next attack.
There. Though his sword was moving toward her left side and the bladed end of her staff, his eyes had flicked first to her right. A feint, then–the true blow would come as she brought her own weapon around to parry.
The man was counting on the inherent unwieldiness of her staff to make it more difficult for her to recover once she’d committed to an attack or defense. She let him continue in his folly for the space of two breaths, all the time she needed. While sidestepping the feint, she thumbed another mechanism and twisted the staff in her hands, neatly separating the six-foot length of wood into twin sooma, three-foot truncheons each now sporting a shining blade.
With one sooma, she deflected the man’s sword as he swung at her right side. With the other, she stabbed upward at his neck, barely missing the jugular as he threw his head wildly to the side. The razor-sharp metal sliced through cartilage, sending his ear lobe and the golden earring it sported tumbling to the sand in a spray of bright blood.
The man cursed, his free hand going to his head as he stepped back to reassess his opponent. He clearly had not expected the trick with the staff, and why would he? The sooma was a weapon favored by her people, but not one much used here in the southern deserts. And even if he had encountered it before, the separating staff was her own design, custom-made for her long ago by a grateful weaponsmith in the City of the Sultans.
His eyes narrowed as he watched her, and he was perhaps thinking this was a fight best abandoned. For though he was a full foot taller than Shaala, he could see now the muscles rippling beneath the dark skin of her bare arms, the many battle beads braided into her hair, the ready ease with which she held her weapons. But even if he were reconsidering, it was too late. Shaala could hear the martial rhythm of her heartbeat, like the drumming of the tahtibya on their hide-covered darbuks. She raised the sooma, one pointed at the man like an accusation, the other angled over her head. Her left leg lifted of its own volition, thigh parallel to the ground and toe flexed, the first position. The Dance of the Staves was about to begin.
The Cover (and Everything in Between...)
In a dark land of sand and sorcery, one woman takes up her staff to defy the dictates of tradition and break a terrible…