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Amid Sun and Stone, an Alias

Amid Sun and Stone, an Alias 
by Daniel Ausema

She took only the clothes she wore when she left the sun-drenched streets of her home, Shabva the legendary city where caravans cross beneath a glorious arch of carved stone. Even her name she left behind, calling herself simply Tainla, which is Traveler in the old dialect of her people. And so, with no name to cling to, even the dust did not stick to her sandals.

Hard sand passed beneath her feet. Beyond the city walls no plants grew, but Tainla spared no thought for their lack. Only escape mattered. Gone the night-time knife, left behind the whispered threats. She found a track, dug by centuries of feet that left the main way, plunged into the labyrinth of rock pillars that stretched away toward the fabled sea. They were an earlier people, the stories said, turned to stone by their own vengeful god. A vengeful god sounded promising, as long as its vengeance faced the city behind her.

Tainla escaped among those pillars, yet her name did not sit easily on her shoulders. It fretted, like a cat not yet convinced of her intentions, circling, beginning to lie down only to stretch and move again. Her hand brushed a pillar. Would it come to life? It crumbled into a deep orange sand where her fingers passed and slipped from her skin to mingle with the sand below. It left no trace on her hand.

The day passed. When she dared to stop, Tainla ate desert fruit, dry and prickly. She cut the stem of a water-miser and drank its juice, looking over her shoulder as she tipped her head back. The pillars of rock leaned over her, asking her a question she was sure she knew the answer to, if only she could catch the words.

Other voices whistled across the wind. She pictured them as weaving a garment of sound, the warp to the wind’s weft, twining between pillars. Tainla wanted to pull that garment down and let it cover her, hide her. Then she could stop for a moment and rest, but if there was anything to it beyond her imagination, it resisted being gathered about her. Or maybe it was her, something about herself, that resisted letting it settle.

When she gave up those attempts, a single voice unwove itself, and she followed it through ever narrower gaps to a series of caves.

“None will find you here, child.” A figure lay at the edge of one of the caves above Tainla's head. The rock bulged into odd shapes that she easily climbed. From below she’d thought the figure to be old, at that age when men and women look the same. Closer, she could see youth in its face, in the implied strength of how its limbs were arranged, but she still couldn’t identify its gender.

“I found you without too much difficulty,” Tainla said as she reached the entrance. A fire smoldered within, lighting lines of stone jars and a wall filled with letters Tainla didn’t recognize. She turned back and looked across the lines of pillars toward Shabva. The pillars hid the city, but she pictured people weaving their way inevitably toward her. Servants, soldiers, her former husband. “What’s to stop others from finding me as well?”

The figure moved an arm, encompassing the land before them. Tainla looked again at the rock figures stretched nearly to the horizon, but from this vantage they truly did look like people, like soldiers armed and facing toward distant Shabva and the caravan roads as if to guard some priceless treasure. What they guarded, she realized was those caves, for none faced directly toward those mouths in the rocks.

“The rocks will guard you, and the wind. And old Abvell will watch over you.” The figure pointed at itself with the name, but what had it named itself? Abvell gave her no clue of whether to think of the figure as he or she. It meant nothing...and yet it reminded her of other words, of both grandfather and grandmother, of mystery, even of water, as if once all those words had been one word.

Abvell brought her a clay cup of water even as she thought. Should she think of Abvell as a Wise One? But she had no proof of Abvell’s wisdom. Perhaps as a wet one, a one of water even as the plants she’d bled dry. As a grandparent, an enigmatic one.

“Thank you...Abvell.”

Abvell smiled.

Tainla slept that night in the cave, and the wind whispered, telling her to rest easy. A sound of weapons made of stone floated distantly through her sleep, and it comforted her. But another sound also entered her dreams, a cat that yet refused to lie down.

Tainla woke relieved, refreshed...yet not as much as she felt she should. She still saw daggers at the edge of her vision, still spun around frequently, expecting a shadow to attack.

Abvell climbed over from another cave, a jar of water clutched under an arm. “Rest easy, visitor. No one is here with you but old Abvell and the rocks.”

Tainla closed her eyes and drank the water, heavy with the taste of clay. When she’d finished, Abvell gave her a tour of the nearby caves. Some were connected within, but most required some scrambling from entrance to entrance. A spring that was certainly the source of the water she’d drunk filled one shallow cave, the clay visible in swirls of many shades before the water spilled down to the hot ground below. The resulting trickle of a stream didn’t survive long enough to disappear from sight among the pillars of stone.

Back at her own cave, Tainla ate the food Abvell gave her, figs and cheese and a paste of something she didn’t recognize. It tasted of earth, but that could have been no more than the water used to make it. Beneath that were delicate flavors and hints of strong spice. She didn’t ask Abvell to identify it, but the enigmatic one told her anyway.

“It’s a root.” A single finger pointed at a clump of hardy plants that looked too dry to be able to be used as food of any kind, even their roots. But which of those plants the finger singled out Tainla wasn’t sure. “Your people don’t know its making yet, but ours did.”

After she’d eaten, Tainla wandered some more while Abvell disappeared into the rocks, perhaps to mash more of the root for paste or to tend whatever it was that had given the milk for the cheese. Tainla followed a path down to the base of the rock pillars. The voices she’d heard the day before were silent now, as was the wind, except as a distant echo far above.

She didn’t touch the pillars this time, knowing already the sight of them crumbling to the ground, but she studied them, smelling their mineral richness, seeing the lines of varying rock. She wandered, dancing herself to that distant whisper of sound. She imagined the pillars had hands, reaching down to pat her back, imagined smiles in the lines of rock, as adults indulging in the playfulness of a nearby child.

The images shattered when Tainla heard voices, heavy footsteps. She darted around a pillar and hid. Was it him? Had he come as far as this to search for her? The noises were muffled by the pillars, which now seemed both friend and enemy, hiding her but disguising the approach of these others. She ran behind another that she hoped was farther away, hesitated, and slid around, trying to decide which side would place her opposite the noises.

The sounds came no closer for the moment, and she dared looked around. Where were the caves? How far had she come, and in what direction? Her wandering had been without thought for returning. She looked up, but the sky gave no clue. What had she thought, that clouds would gather and form an arrow? That some almighty hand would draw a map against the blue dome?

She ran more, always away from where she guessed the people would be, and the noises did fade. But she hadn’t yet found the caves, and the day was westering.

“Abvell,” she whispered, not daring to shout and draw the attention of those seeking her. “Where am I? Where are you?”

The day before it had been as a voice, untangling itself from the noises around. This time it was a light, but it gave that same sense as of a thread pulled from something more intricate. It lit a path among the pillars, pulling back as she ran toward it. When she peeked over her shoulder, there was no sign of the light behind her, no sign even of her own footprints.

At the caves Abvell waited without any hint of alarm or reproach...or anything really but welcome. Tainla climbed up and began to apologize, but a wave of a hand and an offered platter of food and water silenced her.

Tainla slept, and again it was a peaceful sleep in her own small cave, but again she woke less rested than she should have. Nothing should ruin this rest. Why wasn’t she rising with open eyes, with easy steps, with carefree heart?

The clay of the water felt as full of energy as food should, and she ate the food simply to enjoy its taste. Even lacking in the rich flavors of her house in...the city—what was its name? Shabva, the syllables came as if from the edge of an ancient memory, not the day and a half it had been. These were delightful tastes, the salty cheese, the spices buried within the earthy paste like bits of treasure, and the sweet figs.

That day she confined herself to the caves and rocks immediately around them. Abvell found her in late afternoon when the winds smelled of a distant sea she’d never seen and the bird songs turned quieter to match the aging of the light. Tainla stopped herself from curtsying—such formalities of her former life were reed boats in this desert.

“Tonight we dance, while the sun still sings farewell.” Abvell held out a hand to her. “Come down to the pillars with me.”

Tainla wasn’t sure what to make of the offer, but she followed Abvell, something inside her already dancing in anticipation. She pictured some sort of rite, a fire perhaps, some chanting in a language she did not know. In their brief time together Abvell had hinted more than once of others, perhaps, Tainla imagined, busy among other caves or in gathering the roots and tending the animals. So Tainla expected a few others might arrive also and take part. Perhaps some primitive instruments to set the pace of dancing.

But at the base of the cliffs a full music of many instruments embraced her, and too many people to count danced where the pillars had been earlier that day. Those pillars were gone, as if pushed aside or pulled down into the earth to form a dance floor.

Tainla had no time to wonder as the dancers spun her into their midst. The music was nothing she knew, rapid and dissonant at times, falling into more stately harmonics. Yet she felt no compunction about joining the dance. The music required no fancy steps, no familiarity even in order to simply move along through wheels small and large, with partners whose faces she never quite saw, in groups and alone, but never isolated.

The sun sang farewell, as Abvell had said, and it seemed more literal than Tainla could have imagined, as if the sun itself saw them dancing, saw her specifically even, and smiled as it moved over the horizon, beyond the sea that was no more than rumor and air-born scents. Clay lamps lit the edges of the dancing, and the light of stars and moon cast a soft light, enough that Tainla had no wish to stop dancing, had no fear of the darkness.

She woke, back in her cave with the sun already fulfilling its own promise of a new day. Her legs felt heavy from the dancing, and her body didn’t want to rise. But Tainla knew that whatever her muscles might say, she wanted to remain in those caves. To eat the cheese and paste and figs with Abvell, to dance with these people who must surely become pillars of stone by day. She had to believe that was who they’d been, but what did it matter that they were of rock and she of flesh? She had been welcomed as one of them last night.

She wanted to wash, sure that the dancing had left her salty with sweat, her hands soiled from all the hands and arms and shoulders she’d touched while dancing. But a glance down showed her hands free of dirt, palms pale as ghosts.

Tainla would speak with Abvell, ask for permission to remain there. How soon might they dance again?

As if the thought of Abvell were a spell of summoning, the old figure climbed up to the mouth of Tainla’s cave. Tainla gathered the food from her but stopped with it resting on her lap.

“Thank you, Abvell. You are kind to me, to welcome me here without questions, to feed me.”

“It is the way of this place.”

“I...I’d like…” She’d wanted to say the words before she took anything from the tray of food, but she found her mouth crying for water. After a refreshing sip she rushed through her speech. “I want to stay here, to help you, to dance again among the stones. May I stay?”

The smile on Abvell’s face was that of a mother-in-law who first sees that the arranged groom for her daughter lives up to her hopes, that of the father who sees his daughter prove her market skill bargaining for cloth and grain. “For three days I’ve named you ‘visitor.’ For three days that is all you’ve been to this place, whose name in a long-forgotten tongue is simply Rest. You will be welcome here.”

Tainla felt a wave of joy, a sea wave with the tang of salty tears. She tried to speak, but the sounds got lost in her mouth.

“You will be as a granddaughter to me. You will dance again with my people, perhaps even marry one.” The thought disturbed the wave for a moment, but Abvell hurried to add, “But you would not have to, if you so choose.”

Tainla allowed herself to imagine such a life. No fears in the night. No drunken shouts of anger. No leering servant-guards. “Yes. Please.”

“Then I must take away the name visitor. That is you no longer. What is your name?”

The name Tainla stumbled for a moment on her tongue as she remembered her former name, the one she’d known since birth in legendary Shabva, which now seemed much more distant than it surely was. She remembered how restless the name had seemed when she set out. But she imagined it calming, lowering itself to her shoulders, settling in against the back of her neck, and she forced her chosen name out.

“Tainla?” Abvell frowned. “Traveler?” The enigmatic figure looked away for a moment, gazed at the ranks of wind-carved stone that were its people, or perhaps at something more distant, the horizon where sky and land blurred, or the stars even. Invisible by day, but Tainla could believe that this person saw even them.

“If you so name yourself,” Abvell at last said, “then so you are.” Abvell pulled the tray of uneaten food away, eyes sad but stony. “I have already removed the name visitor from you, so this cannot be for you. And a traveler, I’m afraid, does not find rest.”


Abvell took no steps but moved away even so, carrying the food and water.

“I...I can change my name. I will call myself Rest. Shamla, in the old tongue of my people.”

Abvell no longer retreated, but no longer looked quite human either. “You have named yourself in the magic of this place. You cannot speak except who you are.”

“No. Please. You said I’d be your granddaughter.” Tainla finally followed Abvell and threw herself before the figure. “You promised I could stay. You promised rest.”

Abvell said no more, and the face that had seemed ancient and young, man and woman, faded into stone. The sun could not have gone far when Tainla realized she knelt before another stone pillar like those on the ground below.

The earth shook. Tainla tried to remain where she was, but the rocks became slick beneath her knees, the world became unformed, and she fell to the ground below. She looked up at the caves, at the single pillar rising among them. And she knew that as soon as she lost sight of them, she would never find it again.

Tainla brushed the thick layer of debris from her cloak and hands and turned away. And lost herself among the labyrinth of pillars.

* * *

Daniel Ausema’s fiction and poetry have appeared in many publications, including Strange Horizons and Diabolical Plots. His latest novel is The Silk Betrayal, published by Guardbridge Books, and he is the creator of the steampunk-fantasy serial-fiction project Spire City. He lives in Colorado, at the foot of the Rockies. Online he can be found at

What advice do you have for other writers?
Read—a lot, and widely—and write—frequently, without giving up midway through a story too often—are the some of the most important basic pieces of advice I’ve received and pass along to others. But that’s advice that is repeated often, so instead I’ll share something I learned from an improv comedy class I took in college, mumble mumble years ago. I’m not a good stand-up comedian...and never aspired to be. But I used the class to help me spur my writing. And one of the key concepts of improv is “Yes, and…” If your improv cohort suggests something off the wall that you weren’t expecting, it’s tempting to answer, “No,” and yank the skit back to what you had in mind. But that kills the scene. Instead you need to learn to accept what your partner states, no matter how much it changes what you had in mind, and run with it.

In writing, that means running with the crazy, off-the-wall ideas that pop into my head as I’m drafting a story (or brainstorming it, or revising it). Not that I take every single idea that occurs to me, but learning to not shut down those ideas just because they don’t fit with what I had initially imagined would happen is key to making sure stories don’t end up stale and predictable. And not just accepting the new idea instead—the “and” part of “Yes, and…” is important too—but interrogating that idea, pushing it to the next conclusion or mystery, and seeing where the idea leads and what it does to the story as a whole.