By M. Kelly Peach
The Bedouin trader and his sons were tired, hungry and thirsty. They had travelled eastward a long distance through the desert. Their path was well-worn and familiar to them; a caravan route that had been used for many centuries.
Twilight was approaching as they reached the crest of the dune. From their height they could see in the distance a green and white shimmering – the oasis village of Absaphala – their intended stopover for the night. A place to do a little trading, replenish their water supply, drink some coffee and be reacquainted with old friends.
The desert air was clear and there was a slight, shifting breeze. Abdul Ibn Rasaf urged his four sons and their mounts forward; his encouragements were unnecessary – they could see just as well as their father the welcome sight of the village and were just as anxious as he to reach the oasis.
With leather harnesses creaking and complaining and various accoutrements jangling, the caravan moved slowly down the dune. The last camel in line, heavily laden and patiently waiting, deposited a large pad of steaming dung before setting off after its cohorts.
Within minutes the swirling and variable evening winds had carried the pungent scent plume of camel ordure to every quarter of the surrounding desert terrain.
At a military camp approximately five hundred meters north of the pile of excrement, Colonel Azziz was in his office poring over Lt. Mehdin’s latest report on troop supplies and munitions while snacking on a dry and rather tasteless lizard pellet when Sergeant Hadj hastened into headquarters. The young scout, bursting with his news, almost forgot to salute his superior officer. After a perfunctory clicking of mandibles that was barely in keeping with military protocol, his palps vibrating with excitement, he rapped out, 'Sir, we’ve detected a huge dump in the Messadi sector. She’s a lovely fresh one sir. Smells delicious – probably the best find we’ve had in a year!'
The Colonel put down his desiccated lizard turd and the boring report. His antennae stiffened. Immediate action would be needed.
'Sergeant Hadj, is it? Tell me there is a steady breeze from the south – '
' – Sorry, sir. The wind’s been shifting constantly all evening. Scouts from General Mustapha’s army are sure to know about this by now.'
'I see. Are Mustapha’s troops still located south of the Messadi sector?'
'Yes sir. Latest intelligence places them about half a click due south of our objective, sir.'
The proximity of Mustapha’s army and their probable knowledge of the camel pad guaranteed there would be bloodshed. Fresh camel dung was a rich prize for which there could be no negotiations and no sharing. Total war was inevitable.
'Well Master Sergeant Hadj, this is excellent news. We’ll need to move fast. Notify the Lieutenant of your discovery and that we are in a fight. I want every able-bodied soldier ready to deploy in twenty minutes. Afterwards you can take this promotion chit to the supply sergeant and get yourself another stripe. Quickly lad, we’re rolling out of here at exactly 2045 hours!'
The soldier, his antennae weaving with joy at his promotion, tucked the chit under his desert camouflage carapace and scurried toward Lt. Mehdin’s office.
General Mustapha, a huge rhinoceros beetle, resplendent in his polished, glossy black carapace draped with several golden braids and lined with bits of shiny metal attached to colourful satin, had received his scout’s report of an extraordinarily large cache of camel manure. His body pulsing up and down with the thrill of impending war and already exuding the watery, ferrous scent of battle pheromones, the General bellowed to his aide de camp, 'Major bou Moudha, order an immediate general mobilisation. I want every capable man and woman flying in fifteen minutes. Leave the kids with the old ones. We must have that dung and we’re going to have to go through Azziz’s fighters to get it.'
Captain ben Fouad was rolling his ball of dung homewards when he heard beetle wings behind him. He stopped and peered upwards, antennae alert and fully extended. His sphere was entirely of bird droppings – he seemed to have a knack for locating this particular type of manna from Heaven – but it was frustratingly small. His wife, Drossa, at home with the larvae, would be disappointed.
The leader of the Roller Company was prepared to defend his small prize if the fast approaching beetle was one of Mustapha’s thieving scavengers. The flier was in a hurry and landed awkwardly. The captain placed himself between the interloper and the ball of nutritious droppings he had worked so hard to gather. His body was crouched low to the ground and his mandibles were locked into fighting position as the grounded flier ran towards him. At half a meter, ben Fouad recognized the familiar sugar-cinnamon scent of home nest pheromones mixed with exhilarating battle pheromones. He went from fighting mode to a greeting stance as he recognized Corporal Wajhadeen, a messenger for Colonel Azziz.
'Captain ben Fouad, we’ve discovered a huge pile of camel manure halfway between us and Mustapha’s army. Primo stuff sir, and we’re sure he knows about it too. Colonel Azziz has ordered a full mobilisation. We meet at the staging area in ten minutes and fly out at 2045 hours.'
'Any other troops out gathering?'
'A few more, sir. Our squadron is collecting them as we speak.'
'Very good. Carry on.'
The dismissed flier took off to find the remaining late gatherers. Fouad hastened to his underground home with the now unimportant globe of bird ordure. He found his bride, slim and lovely as ever with her metallic blue sheen, standing in the children’s brood chamber watching her beloved larvae sleeping. He entered quietly, passed the dung ball to her and then caressed her antennae with his. Startled at the mention of the impending battle, she instinctively drew back shuddering in denial and fear. After a moment her military training took over. She carefully placed the sphere next to the kids where they would be able to feed from it when they awoke. She took another minute to silently and lovingly observe her children; she was reluctant to leave, intuiting she and her husband were very likely never returning. After a tap on the thorax from Fouad, she bid the children farewell with feathery strokes of her antennae and departed. Within five minutes both husband and wife were fully dressed in their battle gear and on their way to the staging area.
Private Hameed, a massive, excitable rhinoceros beetle with General Mustapha’s elite Saray Muhafizi Unit, was quivering in anticipation of the forthcoming combat. His sharpened steel horn sheath was already firmly affixed but he was struggling, in his excitement, to strap on his last, spurred fighting greave. His best friend, Najji, another rhino in the unit, had to assist him.
'Naj, we are going to kick Azziz’s ass. He’s not going to steal our camel scat. We’ll mow ‘em down and then I’m going to throw myself right into the middle of that delicious pile and chow down!'
The older and wiser Najji, a phlegmatic veteran of many faeces wars, clucked his misgivings of Ham’s sanguine assessment of the battle to come as he securely strapped the sixth and final fighting greave on to his young friend’s right posterior leg.
'What? C’mon Naj. You know we can outfight those bastards blindfolded and with our two anterior legs tied together!'
Najji started checking the rest of Hameed’s battle gear. Ham, like most juveniles, was hasty and careless, and it would not do to have a spur falling off in the midst of battle. 'Do not be so certain Hameed. Remember, the Colonel has his own unit of tough, mean goliaths who are almost as big as we are and they have those wicked horns. Believe me, they know how to fight. They are every bit as well-trained and well-equipped as we.'
'Naj, you don’t think we’re going to lose do you?'
'I’m not saying we’re going to be defeated. I’m saying you need to be careful when we meet the enemy. Keep your wits about you and remember your training. You want to survive so that you can enjoy the fine manure. Then, someday, find a lovely wife and father many warriors.'
In their respective encampments, each leader addressed its followers:
Azziz’s troops, every last male and female in his command, were gathered at the staging area to hear the words of their fearless, if somewhat insane, commander.
Colonel Azziz climbed upon the backs of two of his largest aides, enormous goliath beetles standing side-by-side.
His voice ringing with a righteous, burning hatred, his mandibles vibrating with battle lust, Azziz screamed, 'You know our objective. The precious pile of camel dung will feed every man, woman and child of our people for weeks. It was delivered unto our soil as a gift from the gods.'
'Our enemies are seeking to steal it from the mouths of our own larvae. And when they steal our faeces they will, in their unclean, pagan folly, form their balls of ordure by rolling them away from their bodies!'
There was an angry muttering from the mass of troops at the sinning ways of their foe.
'This cannot be allowed. The Mustaphites must be destroyed! Kill every male and female!'
Mustapha’s divisions, comprised of every single able-bodied adult at his command, were standing at attention on the parade grounds waiting to hear their brave, if somewhat crazed, leader.
Standing on the backs of his two largest rhinoceros beetle bodyguards to harangue from best advantage, General Mustapha surveyed his expectant troops for a moment.
Compound eyes blazing with murderous intent and voice husky with loathing for the enemy, Mustapha roared, 'The foul Unbelievers are preparing to steal the divine camel pad gifted to us by the Holy Ones in Heaven. They will take it from the very mouths of our babes. You know their sinful natures; their ungodly teachings. They will, when forming their dung balls, in accordance to their heathenish beliefs, roll the faeces toward their bodies!' A growl of detestation arose from his forces. 'This must not be allowed. There can be no quarter asked and no quarter given. The infidel Azzizites must be annihilated! Kill them all!'
As their final act of preparation for battle, both leaders willed themselves to an exudation of berserker pheromone. Subordinate officers purposely placed behind them beat their wings – ostensibly in applause for the inspiring words of their commanders but in reality to disseminate this rarest and most powerful of pheromones to the front ranks. When these soldiers inhaled the meaty scent it, in turn, triggered their own emissions which carried to the ranks behind them. The pheromones of mindless battle lust quickly spread transforming every soldier into an automaton of utter destruction. There would be no pretence at strategy; it would simply be attack and kill until killed.
At the signal each army, with a thunderous beating of wings, arose en masse from the shadows into the light of the bloated and crimson setting sun. Captured in the final, florid rays, the various units – despite their different sizes, shapes and coloration – were stained a uniform blood red as they flew off towards the camel’s ordure.
It took only a few minutes to traverse the half a kilometre to the treasured object. It was covered with flies: those jackals of the insect world. At the sound of thousands of approaching beetles from north and south, they quickly dispersed to a safe distance. The armies converged as the sun touched the horizon.
Both sides were so eager for the fight that the front ranks didn’t even land. Instead they grappled in mid-air, slashing and biting as they fell to the warm sands to continue their individual battles.
Savage slaughter ensued among the rollers. If you carried enemy scent you were attacked by your foe and fought until one or both of you were dead. Within minutes the desert sands all around the camel pad were soaked with beetle gore. Severed limbs and antennae littered the ground. Screams of the mortally wounded arose from the piles of dead and dying who were already being feasted upon by the bravest, or most ravenous, of the flies.
In the meantime, the tunnelling companies had landed and dug in beneath the camel pile. They met their enemy below ground as their myriad tunnels intersected. With no room to manoeuvre and retreat not an option, each encounter was a short and brutal mandible-to-mandible combat.
Finally, the heavily armoured Saray Muhafizi’s lumbered into the fray from the south just as their special forces counterparts, the equally huge Siyah Nefer’s strode in from the north. The elite fighters, massive as tanks, swept all before them. As both units advanced under the direct command of General Mustapha and Colonel Azziz respectively, the few remaining survivors from the Roller companies were easily disposed of with quick, almost negligent horn thrusts or slashing blows from battle-greaved limbs.
As they closed in upon the enormous mound of faeces the weight from several of the heaviest soldiers in the vanguard--including Azziz and Mustapha who were the largest specimens in their respective armies--caused those underlying tunnels closest to the surface to collapse exposing dead tunnellers from both sides. No quarter had been asked and none had been given. The back ranks halted and began milling in confusion.
Both leaders, half-buried in the shifting sands, with the prize in sight and berserk with battle lust, screamed at their troops to split up, circle the camel’s dung from east and west and attack! Their subordinates led the charges while the two leaders struggled to dig out.
Captain Moullasi, Azziz’s best combat leader, had fallen into one of the collapsed tunnels but was able to extricate himself with ease. He hurried over to his Colonel, 'Sir, allow me to help – '
Azziz, flailing in his sand pit, snarled furiously, 'Get with your men Captain. I’ll be out of here in a minute. Destroy the filthy Mustaphites.'
Moullasi hesitated, torn between his duty to his commander and to his own unit.
'Now Captain, that’s an order,' roared the Colonel.
On the other side of the pungent mass, the General was in a similar predicament. Private Najji, who had also fallen in, and then, after freeing himself, had tried to help his leader, was commanded to join in the battles raging east and west of the camel pad.
The commanders-in-chief, as they tried digging their way out, could hear the sounds of ferocious conflict – stridulating howls of pain when horn thrusts found weak spots and razored greaves gashed bodies. Upon redoubling their efforts, the commanders finally got themselves free and staggered towards the dung. The din of battle had waned to some isolated clangs and crashes as the few remaining soldiers fought to the death.
To observe from best advantage, both leaders decided to climb to the top of the excrement. Ascending the fresh, dark brown briquettes was laborious and by the time they reached the crest they were covered in camel feculence. Pausing to rest, they noticed there was no longer any sound of strife, just the sighing of the desert wind and the buzzing of flies. The sour stench of death was as overpowering as the sweet stench of the camel’s ordure. They could dimly see, in the rosy evening afterglow, still bodies scattered everywhere. Their troops had fought gloriously and followed orders to the utmost. As commanded, they had annihilated the enemy but, in doing so, themselves as well.
The two remaining combatants charged each other over the uneven, oily terrain. They crashed together. Mustapha found himself in a lower position. Using his sheathed horn, now crusted in faecal matter, he was able to thrust upward and gore Azziz in the under-abdomen. Azziz, fatally wounded, twisted on his foe’s horn and stabbed downward with his distinctive Y-shaped horns, also sheathed in once shining but now brown and greasy steel sharper than a wasp’s sting. He was able to find a vulnerable spot in Mustapha’s armour and deliver a killing thrust to the upper abdomen. They fell sideways and managed to pull free of each other’s horns. Though dying, their implacable hatred drove them to attack each other again. Each was able to grasp the other in powerful mandibles, interlocked like the links of a chain, and, with a final, spasmodic pincering, crush each other’s heads.
Business had been better than hoped for so Abdul was in good spirits as he retraced his steps from two days ago.
It was already noon. The sun blazed high overhead in the faultless blue sky. He decided to call a halt at the top of the dune for the mid-day meal. While dismounting, he noticed a camel’s pad half-buried in the sand and was able to avoid stepping in it. He thanked Allah for the good fortune of finding extra fuel for their dinner fire and ordered his youngest son to gather it up in the camel dung basket.
M. Kelly Peach is a husband and father to four children and two grandchildren. He works as a bureaucrat with the state of Michigan. When he isn't camping or hunting, he is reading, collecting books, and writing whatever strikes, his admittedly strange, fancy.
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