Authors: Helen A. Rosburg’s
The night was dark away from the fires, but Cecile saw the flicker of Matthew’s eyes in the moonlight and lowered her own gaze.
“I … I thank you for the gifts,” Cecile said at last.
“A mere token. To honor you for your bravery. You look very … very lovely,” Matthew continued.
Cecile stared at the ground. Why could she think of nothing to say? What was happening to her? What were these strange feelings churning within her breast? Their heat threatened to overwhelm and burn her, and she hugged herself, suddenly afraid. The urge to flee rose in her and she took a step backward.
“Wait, no … don’t go.” Matthew reached out and imprisoned one slender wrist.
Cecile froze, panic ballooning in her breast, remembering Abdullah. “Let me go … let me go … please! Why won’t you let me go?”
Matthew gripped Cecile tightly and, in a hoarse voice, countered, “Why do you want to run away from me? Why! What have I done to you? What have I ever done to frighten you so?”
Cecile did nothing, was powerless to move, caught in eddies and whorls of emotion she had never before experienced. She tried desperately to revive the anger that had always been her salvation before, but it would not come, and Matthew’s face loomed closer, lips parting, until she felt his breath against her mouth, warm, so warm …
For my mother, the late Deedie Wrigley Hancock. Arabian horse breeder extraordinaire.
And for my husband, James, to whom not only this book, but my life, is dedicated.
Published 2007 by Medallion Press, Inc.
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is a registered tradmark of Medallion Press, Inc.
If you purchased this book without a cover, you should be aware that this book is stolen property. It was reported as “unsold and destroyed” to the publisher, and neither the author nor the publisher has received any payment from this “stripped book.”
Copyright © 2007 by Helen A. Rosburg
Cover Illustration by Adam Mock
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without written permission of the publisher, except where permitted by law.
Names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictionally. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
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I would like to thank the late Gladys Brown Edwards who, when I told her I wanted to write a novel, told me to write first about something I knew. I thought I knew about Arabian horses until she began to share her vast knowledge with me. Her rare books, journals, and firsthand experience with the Bedouin and his horse were invaluable research aids.
Some of the names in this book, notably Bayrut and Badawin, are spelled as they were during the period in which the story is set.
The Sahara, 1839
HE KEENING OF THE
THE HOT DESERT
wind, all but covered the sound of the galloping horses. The pounding hooves were further muffled by the sands into which they sank. The two horses and their riders raced in near silence through the Saharan night.
The gray mare, despite her lighter burden, remained slightly behind the chestnut. But there were few who could ever catch Al Hamrah, and tonight was no exception. The valiant red mare ran on, flat out, faithfully bearing her master and the precious bundle he clutched to his breast.
The featureless miles fell away, rolling dune upon rolling dune. Flecks of foam spattered the lathered horses, their nostrils flared, red, and still they ran on in the tireless fashion of their noble breed. Alone in the night, with only the wind and the sand for companions, they continued their race against time.
Then, suddenly, the riders were alone no longer.
Out of the inky gloom a half-dozen mounted men appeared, rifles raised in warning. Almost immediately, however, they recognized the white-clad figure upon the red mare. Sharply wheeling their mounts, the men joined in the midnight race. All six horses, though fresh, trailed the fleet chestnut.
The camp from which the men had come was not far. Within moments it came into view over the low rise of a dune. It was a tribe of some size, and many tents spread across the sand surrounding the oasis. A large tent with bold red stripes stood near the center of the gathering, and it was for this that the riders headed.
The chestnut mare’s rider, a tall, lean figure robed in white, dismounted carefully, still tenderly cradling his tiny bundle. The hard lines of his weathered face were tightly drawn in a mask of grief, and he stumbled, exhausted, as he approached the tent’s entrance. His servant, a small, nut-brown man, took the reins of both their mounts and watched with obvious concern as his master ducked inside the tent flap.
Raga eben Haddal, shaikh of the Rwalan tribes, nodded a greeting to the tall, light-eyed stranger. Though he had never personally met Francois Villier, desert rumor was more swift than the flying hooves of the most prized desert steeds. Capturing the stranger with his commanding gaze, Haddal quickly searched his memory for what he had learned, over time, of the Frenchman.
All, of course, knew the man had come to the desert many years before to buy the finest of the great Ali Pasha Sherif’s famous horses. The foreigner and Ali Pasha had become great friends, thus ensuring Villier’s welcome among the desert tribes, to which he had then traveled in search of more animals. He learned the languages and customs of the desert peoples and soon, it was said, became as one of them. The Frenchman’s skill upon a horse was legendary, as if he had been born a Rwalan. Indeed, it had seemed to be the foreigner’s wish to be one with the desert tribes, for he had remained among them, abandoning his plan to return to his country with the animals he had acquired and, eventually, had taken a bride of the people. These things Haddal knew.
The shaikh also knew, though the tragedy was but hours old, that the Frenchman had lost his cherished wife. Swiftly over the sands the news had come; Sada bint Mustafa was dead. Like so many other desert women, childbirth had taken her life.
What Haddal did not know was the reason for Villier’s midnight visit, and his curiosity was great. He clasped his hands across his ample, but still firm, middle, and leaned forward.
“You are welcome in my tent, Frenchman.” Haddal spoke the ritual words of greeting softly. “I shall instruct my servant to prepare coffee.”
Villier sagged with relief. The first hurdle had been cleared. Haddal had offered his hospitality, a precious commodity among desert tribes. Having been accepted as a guest, the exhausted Frenchman lowered himself to the carpeted ground.
“You have my thanks and my gratitude,” Villier replied. “But I must decline your kind and generous offer to share coffee. Time grows short, and I have yet many miles to ride.”
At the sound of her father’s voice, the infant woke briefly and stirred. Villier rocked her gently, then refo-cused his attention on the imposing black-eyed, black-bearded figure.
“I have learned a ship bound for Europe has lately come to Bayrut, and I would be on it,” Villier continued. “I am taking my daughter back to France.”
Haddal grunted, unsmiling. “Your haste to leave us after so long is unbecoming, Frenchman. Surely it is not the death of a mere woman which sends you so abruptly from our land.”
Having lived so long among the Rwalans, Villier was used to the outwardly casual, almost callous, attitude of men toward their women. While he did not subscribe to it himself, he understood the centuries of tradition and the harsh realities of life in the Sahara that had formed such an attitude. Nevertheless, mention of his “woman” caused a fresh wave of grief to wash through his aching limbs.
Villier did not, however, betray his emotion to his host. “You are most wise, O Shaikh. Indeed, it is not simply tragedy which sends me riding into the desert this night.”
Once again Haddal grunted. “Go on, Frenchman. Speak.”
“As you command, O Shaikh.” Villier lowered his gaze briefly in deference, and continued. “News has surely reached you that the great Mahmud is dead.”
“Of course I have heard this. While we Arab peoples have never welcomed the rule of the Turkish Sultanate, we still mourn the loss of this leader. And,” Haddal said, sharp, dark eyes pinned to the foreigner’s expression, “we now fear for the future.”
“As you should,” Villier replied simply. “Murad the Fifth will now reign.”
It was the shaikh’s turn to try to hide unwelcome emotion. “This I had also heard,” he said at last. “But I did not wish to believe it. The man is a degenerate and dangerous fool.”
“You are astute, O Shaikh. I have even heard there is question of this new sultan’s sanity. European powers will surely take advantage of this ruler, and they will gain in strength throughout the lands over which Turkey reigns. Squabbling will begin, petty wars. Perhaps a great one.”
“Our country will suffer. While yours grows stronger.”
Villier nodded once. “The desert tribes may rise up, too. I see this, as I know you see it. It will soon be time for the people to attempt to regain their land, as it will be time for the foreign powers to take back the lands of their continent which the Turks have stolen.”
Villier’s words confirmed the shaikh’s fears, as well as his hopes. He was inclined to like the tall, pale foreigner. “You speak truly, Frenchman. Yet still I say your haste is unbecoming. Many years you have been one with us. Would you not stand and fight with us, should our people rise?”
Villier did not blink, or allow his gaze to waver from the shaikh’s. “Most certainly. Had my woman lived.”
“There are others,” Haddal challenged. “Your child need not lack a mother’s care.”
“There was only one, incomparable, daughter of Mustafa, however. She cannot be replaced. Nor would I wish to try.”
Haddal stroked his beard to hide his smile. “What you say may be true,” he conceded. “Sada bint Mustafa was a rare desert gem. A daughter of courage and great beauty.”
“For me, there will never be another.”
“Bah. European sentiment.”
“And I am, in the end, only a European.”
Haddal revealed his smile at last. “Correct, Frenchman. So perhaps it is best, after all, that you leave us. The desert protects only its
Villier resisted the nearly overwhelming urge to take a deep sigh of relief. It was no easy task to manipulate a man as shrewd and wily as Haddal. “And daughters,” he added quickly.
Haddal’s smile faded, but not his amusement. His heavy brows lifted a notch. “It seems you are about to come to the reason for this visit, Frenchman.”
“You are wise beyond compare, O Shaikh.”
“And beginning to tire of this, Frenchman. Ask what you would of me.”
This time Villier allowed himself the deep breath. “A woman who … who was with my wife at … at the end … told me that your youngest wife, Sita, has recently given you a new son.”
Haddal nodded warily.
Villier swallowed. “I would ask to put my child at your wife’s breast and allow her to suckle.”
Haddal barely managed to conceal his surprise. “I will assume, Frenchman, that you realize the implications of this act, or you would not have asked.”
“I do, indeed. You are the most powerful shaikh of all the tribes, a good and just man. Though I will raise my daughter in my homeland, this is the land of her birth, and of her mother’s people. It is a part of her heritage. I will never deny it to her, and she may one day wish to return. Should she do so, she must have a home. And a foster father to protect and guide her.”
Despite the solemnity of the moment, Haddal smiled again. “You ask a great deal, Frenchman. Daughters are a great responsibility.”
Villier returned the smile. He had won now, and he knew it. “I am not a poor man, as you know. In gratitude, should you accept the role of my child’s foster father, I will give you two of my finest mares and a she-camel. The rest I leave in trust, in your care, of course, for my daughter.”
Though Haddal’s features betrayed no emotion, he could not disguise the gleam of delight in his eyes. Villier, he had heard, had many camels, and, of course, some of the best horses to be found in the desert. And what were the chances the foreigner’s daughter might actually return one day to claim her inheritance?
“Very well,” Haddal replied at length. “I accept this charge you have given me.”
Had he dared, Villier would have wept with mingled relief, exhaustion, and grief. He loved this land. The hardest thing he would ever have to do would be to leave it. But he must. He had no choice. If he had assessed the situation correctly, dangerous times lay ahead. Too many memories lay behind. He could not bear to remain in the land where he had lived with his wife, the only woman he would ever love. And a European ship had come to Bayrut in a most timely manner. He did not know when there might be another. He must leave now.
He could not, however, abandon his adopted country completely, or the memory of his beloved Sada. So he had done the best he could. He had ensured her child might one day return. He had secured his daughter’s legacy as ably as he knew how.
Haddal clapped his hands, rousing Villier from his reverie. Almost instantly, a black-robed woman appeared from behind a blanket partition.
“Take this child to Sita,” Haddal ordered. “Put her to the breast. Then go and find a woman among my people who has recently suckled. And whose husband will part with her for a she-camel. Bring her here. Go.”
The woman departed, cradling the baby, and Haddal said to Villier, “Your child still needs mother’s milk and a woman’s care. I give you a woman of my people as a gift.”
“The tales of your greatness and generosity are not exaggerated, O Shaikh. You have my thanks and shall hold my eternal gratitude.”
“As I hold your daughter’s future.”