Authors: Helen A. Rosburg’s
Cecile stepped into the litter, and a gauzy curtain fell closed behind her. The conveyance was lifted, and two more slaves appeared, one on each side. They carried rifles.
“You see,” Muhammad said, indicating the weapons, “there will be no escape, should such a thought have crossed your mind. Now be a good girl and please the caliph well.” Once again he clapped his hands, and the litter moved forward.
The empty feeling remained with Cecile as they entered the winding streets of the city. Sounds and smells registered on her senses, but they meant nothing, evoked no response. Even her heart seemed to have stilled. There was only the gentle rolling motion of the litter, the stirring of the curtains, and the slight movement of the breeze through her hair.
The night sounds of the city came dimly to Cecile’s ears. They all ran together, signifying nothing; voices, the mindless noises of animals. All were the same. Not even the comforting, familiar thud of horses’ hooves beating upon the ground could rouse Cecile from her stupor.
Yet on they came, and on. Closer by the moment, until the earth seemed to tremble with their thunder.
Something quickened in Cecile’s breast. She blinked, swallowed, felt the blood once more course through her veins. A strange exhilaration filled her, and she moved at last, her body returning to life.
Even as she parted the curtains she saw them. They careened around a corner into sight, rifles raised, horses flying.
Colorful bridle tassels, whipped in the wind, tails streamed and robes billowed. For one, brief, heart-stopping moment, Cecile was caught in a dream. It shattered with a jolt.
A cry split the night. She thought she heard the words “El Faris,” but the terrified voice was choked off suddenly, drowned in the thunder of hooves. The litter lurched forward, and from the corner of her eye, Cecile saw a rifle raised in black hands. It spun away abruptly, tumbling into the darkness. The body of a snow-white horse loomed in her vision.
The animal reared, and the litter was dropped. Stunned, Cecile tried to crawl away, but a body blocked her way. She heard more cries, answering shouts, the dusty shuffling of horses’ hooves, and the thud of fists against flesh. Frantic, she clawed at the still-warm body, oblivious to its reality, knowing only that she must make her way past the grisly barrier to freedom.
She had almost made it. On hands and knees, Cecile crawled into the street, heedless of the commotion all around her. She did not notice that the horsemen had encircled her and were rapidly moving in. She struggled to her feet and ran.
He came up behind her at a gallop. One instant she was running, and in the next a powerful arm had imprisoned her waist and she was lifted from her feet.
Cecile gasped but did not cry out. Her voice had frozen in her throat. The ground below rushed past with dizzying speed, and her dangling feet were but inches from the flashing, flying hooves. Then she felt the encircling arm tighten, and her body swung in an upward arc.
She came down squarely astride the racing horse. Her hair whipped behind her, and the robes of the man in front of her billowed about her legs. Her arms went around his waist, and she clung for dear life as they galloped into the night.
N THROUGH THE STREETS OF THE CITY THEY
raced, the night wind rushing in their faces. Cecile heard the others bringing up the rear. Ahead, pedestrians scattered out of the way. A woman screamed and snatched a child from their path. Heedless, they galloped on.
At last the gates of the city loomed into view. They had been left open, and Cecile did not see the guard she knew should have been there. Before she could wonder further, however, they dashed on through. Her abductor brought his mount to a sliding halt.
The reason the gates were unmanned quickly became apparent as a huge dark-skinned man stepped forward, appearing as if by magic from the shadow of the city walls. He led two horses, both saddled in the manner of the desert riders.
The man to whom Cecile clung questioned the other in a low voice, “The guard?”
“He will sleep for a long time,
but he will recover.”
“Good.” He looked over his shoulder at Cecile. “Can you ride?”
“Of course, but …”
“Then there is your horse. Go on. Go!” With a shove, he dislodged Cecile from her seat, and she slid to the ground barely managing to keep her feet.
Cecile trembled with anger. In the past two days she had suffered more than most people did in a lifetime, and she had had enough. “What do you think you’re doing?” she demanded. “How dare you carry me off like that? You have no right!”
Cecile thought she heard a laugh but could not see the mouth behind the drape of the
or the eyes beneath the shadow of the hooded robe.
“Very well,” her captor said presently, “I will leave you for the caliph’s men. They will be right behind, you know.”
Cecile drew a long, deep breath and straightened her shoulders. She fought to regain her dignity, in spite of the situation and the indecency of her costume. “As long as I have a horse, the caliph’s men mean nothing to me. Just leave the animal, and I will make my own way.”
This time Cecile was certain she heard him laugh.
“I am sorry,” he said, “but the horse is mine. You either take your chances on foot or come with me. Make up your mind. We are leaving.”
At his signal, the men on horseback moved forward as one, prepared for flight. Cecile knew she must decide, immediately. But which to choose? The caliph, or the man dressed as a Badawin warrior? Either way she would be falling into a trap. One had purchased her; the other had stolen her. What was the difference? She seemed to be right back where she had started.
Yet in the desert, on a horse, she would have a far better chance to escape than confined within the walls of a palace harem.
The small band of men was already on the move by the time Cecile made up her mind. She cried out, and the leader turned back to her, reining in his mount.
“Let her have the horse,” he ordered tersely. “And make sure she keeps up. Now, ride!”
They sprang away, and Cecile barely had her foot in the stirrup when her horse leapt after them. Grasping the saddle tightly, she swung herself upward, fortunately landing astride. Then she gathered the reins and leaned forward over the horse’s withers, at once in rhythm with the rolling, ground-eating stride of her racing mount.
The clothes Cecile wore were hardly suitable for riding. The brief jacket flapped and gaped, the trousers whipped frantically against her legs. Somewhere along in the confusion the golden leash had been lost, but the collar still bound her neck. It did not seem to matter. She was barely aware of her earthly body as she flew atop the ground, the desert mare’s streaming mane tangling in her fingers. She was caught in the stuff of dreams.
The other riders pounded around her, the leader just ahead. On they rode at full gallop, into the warm desert night. The city was far behind now, and strange shapes loomed about them, eerie, dark rock formations and scatterings of volcanic debris, faintly lit by a sliver of moon.
Time lost its meaning. Cecile was unaware how far they had ridden, but it had to be a great distance. She heard the chuffing of her mare, as well as the others around her, and her muscles ached from the effort of clinging.
Yet the desert horses were bred not only for speed but for stamina, and they continued until Cecile feared she might slip from the saddle out of sheer exhaustion. Just when she knew she could not bear another moment of riding, she saw their leader raise his hand.
With the cessation of speed came sharper awareness of her physical surroundings. The band slowed to a trot, then a comfortable jog, and Cecile saw they approached a range of low, jagged hills. The volcanic debris around them seemed to have multiplied, and they wound their way carefully through the strange, harsh shapes. She pulled her jacket close across her breast, but no one seemed to notice her, and she had the bizarre feeling she had, indeed, been caught in a dream. With the morning sun she would wake and find it had all been an incredible fantasy.
“The Jabal ad Duruz,” the leader said suddenly, pointing to the hills ahead. Cecile realized he had dropped back to ride beside her. Without a word of warning, he suddenly reached for her, but before she was able even to flinch, he had removed the golden collar from her neck and thrown it away into the night. He tossed her a cloak. He did not utter another word, and though she was unable to see his eyes beneath the hood of his robe, she felt his gaze bore into her. A moment later he rode swiftly away, returning to the head of the band, leaving her to wonder at his kindness.
They continued through the foothills, headed roughly south. The going was slow, and the moon climbed higher in the sky. At last they left the hills behind and descended into more debris-strewn terrain.
El Faris signaled and the group broke into a slow lope, the mile-eating stride for which the desert horses were renowned. Thus they covered a considerable distance in a short time. But it was too long in the saddle for Cecile. Once again, however, just when she thought she could not endure another minute, the end of their journey came into sight.
It was a modest-sized camp. Cecile saw several tents silhouetted against the night, tethered camels sleeping beside them. There was also a small herd of goats and sheep, who stirred nervously at their approach. Otherwise, the stillness was absolute.
Then there was a shout. The riders broke into a gallop. Half a dozen women and a few men emerged from the tents to greet the band. There was happy confusion as the riders dismounted.
But Cecile felt at a loss. What was she to do? Where was she to go? With El Faris? Her stomach spasmed. Was she his property now?
He seemed to have forgotten her, however. A woman led his horse away and, after greeting several people, he disappeared into his tent. If it hadn’t been completely against her nature, Cecile would have broken down and wept with the sheer frustration of not knowing what was to become of her.
Then an old woman hobbled in her direction. “My name is Hagar,” she announced without preamble. “You are to come with me.”
Cecile debated briefly. If she was going to get away, now was her chance. But where would she go? Where was she now? She had absolutely no idea. And she was almost too tired to care.
Cecile dismounted slowly, stiffly, and a second woman appeared and took her horse. Cecile hurried to catch up with Hagar and followed her into a tent.
A simply woven rug covered the ground. There was a small fire pit, a heap of camel dung fuel beside it, sleeping quilts and various utensils scattered about. In a corner stood a
the traditional box that contained a woman’s supplies. Hagar opened it and withdrew a bundle of clothing.
“Here,” she said, thrusting the bundle at Cecile. “Put these on.”
Without hesitation, Cecile stripped off the dusty cloak and harem clothes beneath. Clucking with disapproval, Hagar picked them up and carried them from the tent. To burn them, Cecile hoped. She picked up the garments Hagar had left.
Each tribe dressed a little differently. With a start, Cecile realized she had been given what looked to be what her father had described as the traditional garb of a Rwalan tribeswoman. Rwalan! Luck appeared to be on her side for once. She wondered if it would hold. What lay ahead?
Well, she would find out. She didn’t care if it was the middle of the night, or that her body ached and her eyes threatened to close even as she stood on her feet. She dressed quickly.
First Cecile donned the
a long, broad-sleeved dress of dark blue, and caught it in at the waist with a red-and-black belt of woven goat hair. Last, she picked up the
a head drape, and studied it for a moment. The other women she had seen had a particular way of winding it about their heads, and she copied it as closely as she was able, leaving the end to hang down the right side of her face. She secured it in place with a
a thinly woven cord, and pulled the black cotton veil over her mouth. Hagar reappeared just as Cecile finished.
The old woman nodded with approval. “Better,” she pronounced. “Much better.” She indicated one of the quilts. “Now sleep. We move camp in the morning.”
Cecile remained motionless, fighting her fatigue and gathering her courage. “I’m sorry,” she said with quiet firmness. “But I must see the man who brought me here. He is your leader, I think.”
“See El Faris?”
the name she had heard. “Yes, El Faris.” Cecile watched the old woman closely, expecting an argument, but it was not forthcoming. The old woman seemed to consider.
“Very well,” she replied at length. “I am aware of the circumstances from which you are come. Tonight,” and she emphasized the word,
he may make an exception. We shall see.”
Cecile followed Hagar from the tent, her mind reeling. Hagar, it appeared, had been prepared for her arrival. Others in the camp had not seemed at all surprised by her presence among them, a strange woman arriving on a horse in the middle of the night. Indeed, it seemed they had all expected her. She had not, evidently, been carried off at the sudden whim of some renegade Badawin chieftain. But why had she been taken, and what did this El Faris intend to do with her now that he had her? Well, she would soon find out. Her exhaustion seeped away as she lifted her chin and prepared herself to tell this El Faris, whoever he might be, that she had plans of her own.
Bidding her wait, Hagar entered the large, centrally placed tent. Cecile heard the low murmur of voices, and Hagar emerged.
“He will see you,” she said shortly, and walked away. Cecile found herself alone. And uncertain. Then she remembered.
Frantically, she groped beneath the
amid the appalling tangle of her hair. Had she lost it in that wild ride? Where was it?
Cecile’s fingers encountered the feel of velvet. Thank God! Heedless of the strands of hair that came away with it, she yanked the drawstring free and clutched the pouch in her hand. It lent her the final courage she needed. Without further ado, Cecile pulled aside the tent flap and entered.