The Ta-orts

14 Jan

Weni was a successful commercial operator because of the long journeys he made into the western desert. His home base was the great oasis of Siwa, where he could carry on exchange with merchants from the cities of the Nile. From his father, Weni inherited camels and mules for transporting his wares. He brought back gems, metals, and scarce materials in demand in Egypt. The trade he engaged in was successful and profitable.

With his red hair, blue eyes, and pale white skin, the handsome young man clearly belonged to the desert people of Libya called the Tjehnyu. The Egyptians of the Nile looked down upon them, laughingly calling them the “weeps”, connecting them with the sea birds with that name.

Weni went ever farther westward looking for goods to buy and sell. He was a fearless explorer of the desert and its settlements.

It was in the course of his farthest expedition from Siwa that he discovered an unknown and unrecorded oasis called Rebek and its extraordinary inhabitants.

Out of the glowing light brown sands rose palms of unusual height. The large leaves at their tops were a strange dark green. I have stumbled upon an unanticipated oasis, said the merchant to himself as he drove his small caravan of camels and asses toward the unforeseen location. No one has ever mentioned this particular location to me.

The first person he spied looking at him had an unfamiliar cast of bluish color to his skin. It took only a short while for Weni to realize that all the members of the oasis community had the same blue shading to them. A shared, common inheritance this appeared to be. It was a clearly identifiable feature of the community.

A group of three in desert robes and hoods came forth to meet him.

The trader stopped his animals and gazed in amazement at the odd-looking blue men. The one in the middle spoke in the language used throughout the western desert, but with an unusually old accent and vocabulary that Weni had never heard spoken before.

“Who are you? What are you doing in our region? It will be necessary to come into our oasis for questioning. We have had no visitors for an extremely long time, for many years.”

Weni then led his silent caravan toward the settlement with the three who had come out to him on foot. He soon saw that the dwellings of the oasis were constructed of well-made bricks of bright white. A small crowd had gathered to have a look at the stranger, whose arrival was a rare event in this isolated oasis unknown to the outside world.

A group of young men took control of the animals of the merchant, while the trio escorted him to a large cube-shaped home at the center of the community. The interior of the building was full of shadows, but Weni was able to catch sight of a long table with a white-haired elderly man with blue face sitting behind it. The setting and arrangement was strange and disconcerting to the wandering merchant.

One of the men who brought him here told the traveler he should lower himself to the floor of sand. The threesome stood behind Weni as the old individual spoke to the outsider sitting on the sandy ground.

“Welcome to our oasis, stranger. I am Sahu, chief of the settlement. It has been many years since we have seen anyone from elsewhere. Our custom is to live by ourselves. We engage in no trade with other places or people. Everything needed for a full life is available to us. The desert and the water of our lake are sufficient for our needs. We need nothing from anyone else.”

“I came here purely by chance. It was not my plan or intention. I do not even know the name of this particular oasis. I have no knowledge at all of how the people here live and survive,” said Weni in a soft, even tone.

The oldster studied the tall foreigner. “While you are with us, you shall be our honored guest. This oasis is named Rebek, and we are the Rebeks. Over many generations, our ties to the world beyond the horizon have been limited. We have no need for any contact. We do not regret not having what is not necessary for us to live and survive. Our life here is satisfying and full.”

“You people are used to living in isolation, then,” said Weni in a sympathetic voice.

Sahu looked away. “First of all, you must go to one of our vacant cubes and take some rest. I realize that a long journey in the desert must be tiring.

‘We two shall meet and discuss serious matters this evening when it is cool and you are rested and at ease.”

The three blue men who brought in the trader led him out of the chief’s residence.

As a dark blue twilight engulfed the oasis and the surrounding sands, Weni entered the lantern-lit residence of Sahu. The latter asked him to sit down beside him on a camel-hair rug. In seconds, household servants brought them dishes of roast hyrax and palm dates. The pair ate in silence. Only when they had both finished did the chief raise an important question.

“What do you think of our Rebek oasis, may I ask?”

Weni did not have to consider at length how to answer the question.

“I am amazed at how well the people here live. They enjoy plenty of food from the crops they grow. The life of the community is pleasant and happy, one must conclude. Everything appears satisfactory and well managed.”

The old man grinned. “Then, it will not grieve you to spend the rest of your life with us.”

Weni gulped, staring at the other with surprise and shock. “What are you saying to me?” he asked in troubled confusion. “What do you mean by that?”

Sahu seemed somehow far away as he explained his jolting statement.

“It is not possible for anyone to leave Rebek because of the fatal danger that would be inevitable. Someone such as you may succeed in reaching our oasis. But, like all the inhabitants, a visitor would face the deadly ta-orts should they attempt to depart.”

“I do not understand you at all!” shouted the excited merchant with fear and worry.

“Do you know what a ta-ort is?” said the chief.

“No,” replied Weni. “That is something I know nothing of at all.”

The face of Sahu turned grave and expressionless.

“There exist creatures who rise out of the underworld and haunt the lonely desert. They come forth out of the darkness into the land of hot sand. Their aim is to capture and devour the people who live in the scattered oases. They would go as far as to dig up and eat the dead, so that we have to burn the bodies of all the deceased. Both night and day, they stalk anyone who crosses into the region around us. Their hunger for human flesh is insatiable.

“These ta-orts appear to be dead beings that still continue to breath and move. Their final end has never arrived for them, so that they continue to act and feed themselves.

“Death is assured to anyone, including you, venturing into the dunes of the ta-orts. It is a miracle that you survived your journey to us at the oasis. The danger to you out there was enormous. There is no way that anyone can escape from them.”

For a time, neither of them said anything.

“What shall I do with all my time here at Rebek?” deperately inquired Weni.

“That will be your choice, my good man,” replied the chief in a doomlike tone.

Weni did not sleep at all that night.

His thoughts revolved about the ta-ort and the threat it posed. Was he now a trapped prisoner of this peculiar oasis?

Was escape from this desert location truly impossible, as the chief had told him? Or was that fear of the inhabitants only a product of their imaginations?

Had a fantastic untruth seized hold of all their minds? If that were so, it left him with genuine possibilities.

He considered what options might be available to him.

I do not have the blue face of the Rebeks. My identity is that of a fair-faced weep, a Tjehnyu. I will always stand out as someone from elsewhere, of an origin that differentiates me. How can I ever fit in and blend with this blue-faced population?

A single idea took hold of his thinking. His one goal had to be complete flight from here. Whatever the risk, he had to attempt leaving. There existed no acceptable alternative. He saw no possible future for himself restricted to this one, lonely oasis.

I will never be able to become a blue-faced Rebek satisfied to live and die in this forsaken place, Weni told himself over and over.

It appeared to him that the oasis was a safe refuge in itself, that the ta-orts were not equipped to storm its precincts. For some reason, they left it alone in peace.

But I cannot remain in Rebek like the native-born do.

No, I need to find a way to escape its circumscribed confines.

As days passed, Weni decided it would be helpful to him if he could view closely some ta-ort. That might inspire a solution to the problem he faced.

But how was he to observe these demonic beings from the netherworld?

Weni conceived the idea of attracting the creatures to him in the darkness of night, of somehow enticing them out of their lairs under the desert.

He slowly, carefully made a large, life-size puppet out of rags, straw, rope, and animal skins from his wares. The artificial figure was tied with strings to the back of one of his mules.

Weni himself hid under a large linen blanket placed on a camel that was tied to the other animal. He used a strong rope to connect the one creature to the other.

Could he fool the ta-orts into showing themselves? Could he lure them out into the open?

Weni guided his camel out into the desert as all of Rebek slept. The mule with its big doll followed behind at a little distance.

Would the trick work? he asked himself again and again.

As the odd caravan of two left the oasis and entered the sandy dunes, his eyes scanned the darkness, on the lookout for movement, for any sign of demonic presence.

The two animals slowly moved ever farther from Rebek, until the oasis disappeared from view. Silence ruled over the shadowy wasteland. Only after a considerable while did something move forward toward the intruding camel and mule.

From a distance, Weni caught sight of several short, slight forms running toward the puppet on the mule. They could have been taken for wolves or hyenas, yet their posture was upright and they ran on only two limbs.

Two very long arms hung down from the round shoulders of the shadowy creatures.

The head of each of them was a spherical ball covered everywhere, on all sides, with hair that had to be characterized as being of blue color. Hellish ugliness was common to all of them.

Weni felt horrible fear, unlike anything he had ever sensed before. Nothing like a ta-ort had ever before been visible to his eyes. He never imagined anything like this could exist anywhere in this world.

The pack of these ta-orts surrounded the mule and its straw passenger, prepared to attack and devour the supposed rider on the mule.

I have seen enough, decided Weni.

He dropped the connecting rope and turned his camel about. The rush back to the oasis was swift, motivated by a degree of fear that Weni had never felt before.

He decided to try to find out how much Sahu knew about the ta-orts.

The two men sat opposite each other on the thick  camel-hair carpet.

“I succeeded in catching sight of ta-orts last night,” confessed the outsider.

The chief looked over at him in surprise. “What do you think of the monsters?” he nervously asked the merchant. “How did they impress you?”

“It was dark, but I was able to see their bluish hue.”

Sahu gazed deeply into the face of his guest. His voice fell to a whisper.

“As you have seen, we are of a similar outer color. Can you conceive of the reason for this?”

“No. It is up to you to explain it to me.”

The chief of Rebek drew a long breath.

“Long ago, our ancestors lived far to the East, alongside the great river that flows into the northern sea. The people there were not originally blue, but became so because of their intercourse and interbreeding with undead monsters from out of the underworld.

“Over many eons of time, our skins took on the demonic shade. The people of the valley came to realize the horror of their slavery to their unhuman rulers. For the ta-orts had become owners of most of the cultivated land. They had become the king, his family, and the nobles. The tillers and slaves attempted to revolt but suffered terrible defeat. They had no chance of victory, yet rose up against their oppressors. Their rebellion was a hopeless one.

“The triumphant ta-orts exiled all of our ancestors from the fertile valley, to the extreme limits of the western desert. Those who came to this particular oasis became the Rebeks whom you see today.

“The demons from below set guards around us, to prevent any attempt to return to our original home in Egypt, along the Nile River. That is why we are not allowed to leave this place. All our future generations will, like us, be kept prisoners here.

“We have become used to our condition and know it can never be changed.”

Weni could not prevent himself from reacting with anger.

“But I am not one of you. My skin is far from blue. Why should I be kept within the narrow confines of your oasis, I ask you? There is no similarity between me and your people.”

Sahu meditated on this for several moments before responding.

“I would think that the ta-orts are afraid that word of the existence of Rebek will spread and that more visitors might then be drawn here. That could endanger their age-old blockade of our oasis. It would contain unacceptable risks.

“They do not want the new inhabitants of the great eastern valley to make contact with us and learn of our earlier residence on their lands. Egypt must be kept in ignorance, they believe. Our story and fate must be thoroughly forgotten, as if it never happened.”

“I see,” thoughtfully declared Weni.

He began to understand how he was going to leave Rebek on his own.

It took a long time for Weni to make five straw puppets. The work had to be done in secret. No one must be aware of what he was up to.

At last, he had a false human form for each of his  carrying animals. The last one was left for his own escape. The first five were to be used as decoys.

He chose a night of the full moon. The desert lay suffused with a dull silver glow, making it look fantastic and magical.

Only when all the Rebeks were sound asleep did the trader rise, go out, and place the false figures of straw on his line of animals.

When the task was done, he mounted the last camel, rolled himself up in a carpet, and led out his caravan pack.

One by one, he released each of the animals and returned to his own carrier.

Slowly, each beast went off on its own, no two of them in the same direction. They scattered away from each other, independently and separately.

He could hear the first, then a second, being attacked and assaulted by unseen blue ta-orts. The animals were victims being sacrificed to the hungry ta-orts.

The sound of each capture of a puppet came to his ears in a series.

Weni could foresee that the monsters would be busy trying to eat the straw decoys.

He had cleverly placed the camel he rode at the end of the small line of released animals.

In silence, he slipped past the busy ta-ort marauders trying to feed on straw dummies.

Only when the blue enemies and Rebek were no longer in sight, did Weni know for sure that he had managed to flee the demonic dangers from the undead foes, the hairy blue ta-orts.

The trader vowed to himself that he was never going to come this way on the desert ever again.

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