tagRomanceTears in a Dry Land Ch. 01

Tears in a Dry Land Ch. 01


The girl stood in the shadow of the mud house to watch the rich man's progress through the market place. Her ragged dress could not hide the thickening of her waist. Her head was covered with a heavy veil to keep out dust swirling around on the hot wind from the desert.

Sometimes, men -- strangers to this place - thought her condition made her an easy target for their desires, but others would soon warn them about the curse. Anyone who lay with her would die. Though some tried, her vacant stare and mindless prattling soon made them seek easier companions.

She often stood here watching crowds jostle around the flimsy stalls, sometimes loading their purchases onto donkeys or haggling with the stallholders for a better price. Today a group of women were berating a small child for dropping a basket of watermelons in the dust. The fruit was well past ripe, the basket too heavy for her to hold. As she stumbled, melons slid to the ground, spilling their juices and fragrances into the dust. No-one would pay money for damaged fruit.

Already cunning beggar boys were picking them up and disappearing into the maze of alleyways before anyone could stop them. Furious hands struck the child, angry voices scolding her for not holding more tightly to the basket.

The girl did not hear what the rich man said. She heard only the silence which followed. She saw silver being pressed into the young girl's hand. Then another strange thing happened. The rich man raised his head towards her, his dark brown eyes meeting her gaze. He looked tall and thin under his simple robe, only his proud bearing marking him out for who he was. Everyone knew him. Everyone deferred to his command. Everyone, except the watching girl, who knew no-one.

In two quick strides he stood before her. He placed his hand on her belly and for a moment her vacant eyes cleared. It was as if a lightning bolt struck her. She could not tell if she staggered, but suddenly she knew this man fathered her child.

When she looked up, he was gone. Her eyes scanned the crowd, suddenly catching sight of his bare head moving away through the throng of people. At the edge of the square, he turned and looked back at her, seeming to pause for a second.

There was a meaning in his gaze, saying, "Come with me, if you will, but come now."

For a moment she looked at him, her face for once, calm and peaceful. Anyone noticing would have remarked on the clarity and beauty of her sea-green eyes, strange to see such beauty in a simple dancing girl driven mad by the drugs fed her by her masters.

He waited, watching her - as though wishing a sense of certainty she would follow. Then he turned away, walking slowly but purposefully out of the market place towards the spacious houses of merchants nestled on the hillside away from the heat and dust of ordinary people.

As if responding to his unspoken command, she walked forward into the throng. As usual, the local people moved aside for her, not wishing to be touched by her fluttering rags or her agitated fingers. Her bare feet left tiny indentations in the dust -- a clear path should anyone wish to follow her.

As he walked along the street, it became clearer that the rich man, Yunan, they called him, had two discreet companions breaking the crowd ahead of him.

She heard people whispering at her side, "She goes to seek alms from Yunan, poor creature. She saw him give silver to the girl in the market, so now she goes to ask him to help her. As if anyone can help her."

The two men followed the customs of the people, wearing headdresses of different sorts. One was dark skinned and heavily bearded, small of stature, but thick set and not be taken lightly. The other was taller and clean shaven. His appearance at first glance making him seem younger than his master, until you looked again and saw the lines of scars etched across his face and arms. Only a skilled warrior would bear such scars and live to tell the tale.

As she drew closer, a subtle hand signal or command caused one of the companions dropped back to walk by her side. The girl looked neither left nor right, only at the man she followed. As they moved away through the crowd, they passed into less crowded streets. The road turned sharply, left then right then left again - twisting in ever narrower streets - finally emerging into a wide, open courtyard - white, high walls surrounding a tinkling fountain.

The rich man walked to the centre of the courtyard, then turned to face her. She stopped moving as he did, standing very still as one who is used to staying in one place, unnoticed for long periods. He was silent for a long, calm, still moment, the only sound the water trickling from one basin to another.

"Why did you follow?"

"I carry your child."

If he was expecting an answer, hers was not one he had considered. The shock flickered through his dark eyes, his thick, black eyebrows narrowing.

"Mine? You carry my fruit?"

"Yes," the girl's eyes were clear behind her veil, without guile. "I do not know when or how or where, but she is yours."

"You have no memory of our meeting?"

"None." She shrugged, "I have no memory of my life before this morning when you touched me, thus I have come to you to tell you what I know."

The man looked thoughtful. "This is not my home, I borrow it when I visit this city, but come in, be welcome here." He lifted a hand slightly and a retainer stepped forward offering her a silver bowl brimming with fresh water. "Drink, now, and be welcome."

The girl bowed formally towards him in thanks before taking the bowl from the servant. Again his eyes flickered in surprise when she sprinkled a few drops of water on the doorstep of the building before putting the bowl to her lips and drinking steadily as if she had not drunk for many hours, yet the sun had been hot in the market place.

He was already informed of her lowly status by her dress and the curse surrounding her by his companions, but he was accustomed to making his own judgments about people. Her eyes were too clear for one struck by madness. She proved him correct when she handed the bowl back to the servant saying with a clear voice,

"Blessings upon this house and upon its Master. May there be water here as there is life within and without, above and below."

It was an ancient blessing, not of this place or this people, but one he recognized. Whoever this ragged girl was, she did not belong here.

"Come, let us be out of the heat and dust and be cool and shaded." He held out one lean, but strong hand to her, a calm smile playing around his lips.

If his companions thought it strange he should offer his protection to one such as her, they said nothing, fading away to attend to their various duties.

Her touch was light, as a butterfly rests upon a flower, her eyes never leaving his. As he turned to lead her into the house, she saw a burn scar, half --healed, on the side of his neck.

For a moment, she faltered, seeing a spar of wood falling on him, causing the burn. Her stifled gasp made him look at her, but immediately her eyes became inscrutable once more. He led her into the shade of a covered walkway round the edge of the courtyard and beyond into a high-ceilinged, tiled room. Exquisite rugs covered the floor. He led her to a low seat piled with cushions indicating she should sit.

Yunan was relieved she seemed to trust him. She could not know how long he had been looking for her. Even now, he could not be sure she was the girl he sought, when he touched her in the square and saw she did not know him, he knew that he had to let her follow at her pace, rather than pounce upon her.

The taller of his companions entered the room with a bowl of water for washing the dust from his hands and feet. The girl sprang to life, taking the small ewer from the man and dipping it into the water. Carefully, as if performing an ancient rite, she unlaced Yunan's sandals and poured water over his feet, washing away the grime of his journey with delicate hands.

Both men could see the heavy bruising on her bare arms, their eyes meeting across her head, asking why a woman with child, should have to defend herself in such a way. Then she poured water over his hands, sitting back on her heels while he dried them on a soft towel brought by this companion.

An observer could not tell whether they were servants or slaves, but he did not order them around or even speak to them, save a single word, now and then.. They knew each other well, these three men.

Yunan studied her sitting cross-legged on the soft cushion in front of him, "Why did you follow me? I am a stranger to you, am I not?"

The girl did not answer immediately. It was many months since anyone talked to her directly, expecting an answer not elicited by blows or curses. She took several considered breaths before making her reply.

"The prophets teach us to respect all people, especially strangers, who do not know our ways. I followed you to bring you news which may be to your advantage, but I also bring you warning. It may be harmful to you to welcome one such as me into your house. The dead should not walk amongst the living. But before I speak of these things, may I ask you one question?"

Yunan placed his hands together palm to palm, looking away from her. He nodded, silently.

"The burn on your neck, was it caused by a burning brand falling from the ceiling in a darkened room amidst much noise?"

His head turned involuntarily, a simple twisting motion as if he was newly reminded of the discomfort from the puckered pink skin showing above the collar of his simple, long tunic. His eyes met hers though he barely turned in her direction. "Yes. When did you see that?"

"It was in a dream - the brand fell towards me. I felt the heat of the flame upon my neck and woke screaming. The old woman who sleeps with me said she could not quiet me for a long time." She bowed her head, her voice hardly more than a whisper.

Her shoulders hunched as if she expected a blow for every word she uttered, but she could not stay silent. "There have been other dreams since your seed woke in me."

"My seed. My child. You presume to know much."

Yunan's words were filled with indignation, but his tone was mild, testing her to see how much she really knew.

"I know not how your seed came to be inside me, but I know the plans of those who caused it to be there. They wish you harm."

"Indeed? How can you know this? You know so much, but you know so little. What is the name of this city? What land is this? How did you come to be here?"

The girl looked at him through long, curling lashes. "The dead sometimes hear things spoken by the living. When those who keep me think me sleeping, sometimes they talk together. Sometimes I listen but do not let them know I understand their tongue. That way they would beat me more. Sometimes one of those who wish you ill comes to check I still live and your child grows. He brings money for food which the old woman keeps.

"They call the city, Darfour. Which country this is, I know not. I was brought here in darkness for many days."

He nodded as if encouraging a small child. "Take my counsel on this matter." But she broke across his speech.

"Do you not wish to hear my warning?"

Yunan sighed, looking up once. Both his previous companions were before him instantly. He spoke a few quiet words to them and they moved out of the room to wait in the shadows beyond until they were needed. When they were gone, he leaned back comfortably amongst the cushions. "Now tell me this warning."

"This child I carry - your child - they seek to use it against you. They hope for a son to lead armies to rise up against you, but it will not be a son. This I know. I do not know their plans once they discover the child is not a boy, but by then they will have fed me poison. I was dead from the moment of the child's conception."

The man before her seemed quite still, but there was a tension to him, a tautness in his frame that was not there before. At length he spoke, "So they seek to use the prophecy. These pale-eyed starvelings would turn the long-held words against me."

Unconsciously, she rubbed her swollen belly where the baby kicked. He saw her gesture and looked concerned.

"Where were you held before I found you in the square? Where and with whom were you living?"

"I stood in front of the walls of the house where I was living. It is small - one room for living and one for sleeping reached from a ladder inside."

"Who lives with you? How many? Guards?"

"There is an old woman and a man who also live there. I am free to come and go as I will. One or other of them comes with me. They will have followed me here."

He looked up, silently. There was a breath of air and no sound , but it was evident one or both of his men left the house. "Why would they leave you so free? They must have thought to trap me, they know I come here."

"I am already dead, why cage me further?" She seemed surprised by his question. "I know no-one, I have no money, I cannot move far or fast like this. If I reach the city walls, I am brought back and beaten. The people of the city have been told I am simple and given to ravings. They smile at me sadly. Some give me food or clothes for the baby."

Finally the tension he was feeling made him get to his feet and pace around the room. "Clothes - castoffs - charity for a child of mine?" He stopped for a moment and touched her lightly on her shoulder. "You are not dead- merely sleeping. Soon, you will awake."

She looked up at him, twisting her dress between her fingers "My one concern is the wet nurse. If they kill me immediately and there is no milk, the child will die. They have made no provision for the wet nurse."

"You are how far along now? Five months it must be...? You cannot ride as hard as we need to..."

He stoked his neatly trimmed beard, considering, "and yet we must get from here to a place of safety..." He stopped as if realizing her fragile state. His words were only making her more agitated. "No, tonight you must sleep and take your ease. Tomorrow we can make plans."

The girl rose to her feet, "I must get back now I have given you my warning. They will be angry with me and withhold my food if I am not back before nightfall."

Yunan placed a restraining hand upon her arm. "You go nowhere. The old man and..." - he broke off and looked towards the shorter of the companions who appeared like a spirit at their side. "... and the old woman know where you have gone. By evening tomorrow, they will be upon us. There is no going back to sleep now, Sofia. Now you must awake."

He felt her start when he mentioned her name, but he was sure now this was the girl he sought, the dancing girl who came to him as a gift and who disappeared the night his stronghold went up in flames.

He saw the panic in her eyes as they darted from him to the door and back again. He took both her hands in his and drew her down with him again onto the cushions. With gentle fingers, he pulled aside her veil and headdress, nodding to himself as her chestnut hair fell down around her shoulders like a thick curtain.

"I must eat," she protested, trying once again to get to her feet, but his arm was now around her waist and she could not move. "For the child's sake, I have to eat."

He nodded, "Yes, you shall eat and bathe and rest. I, myself, have not eaten this day since dawn..."

"Do they starve you too?" Her question was almost rhetorical, words strung together in an effort to beat down her rising panic. Since she heard her name, memories had been throwing themselves at her mind.

She saw herself being trussed up like a chicken and tied to the back of a camel, blindfold. She felt the burning heat of the day with few rests and little water; the constant sickness caused by the camel's gait, the bitter cold of the dark nights when she was not allowed to even see the stars.

She felt her captors' heavy hands and harsh ways. She was not to be killed yet, but they laughed every time they saw her retch, speaking of strange prophesies to bring them power and ensure the ruin of the man sitting beside her. Sitting beside her and talking to her in a calm, gentle voice, his long fingers stroking her hand as he would to comfort a child.

"No, they do not starve me. No-one starves me, no-one makes me prisoner." He smiled at that thought. "None shall make me prisoner. Although they may thank their fate if they only end up imprisoned. But I have an appetite. So we shall all eat. We shall begin by breaking bread, while Surak prepares a meal."

Sophia took hold of one of his hands. "Your hands are warm...kind..." she placed it on her belly. "When you touched me here, I knew."

His smile was grave, but gentle and he looked at her. "Few here would think Yunan would ever be called kind or caring. But few here know me truly. Let us eat. Surak, bring bread and make a memorable meal - one of your best."

Surak, the shorter man, smiled unexpectedly. Though his teeth were uneven and mottled , there was no doubting the genuine delight there, nor his devotion to his master - the man who had called himself, Yunan.

Hard, unleavened bread was brought on a huge platter of beaten silver, together with goblets of pomegranate juice sweetened with honey, to soften the bread. The servant laid it before them on a low table, then reappeared shortly afterwards with carafs of wine and camel's milk which he placed within easy reach.

Forgetting her terrors and her manners, Sophie reached for the caraf and began to gulp down the milk, leaving a white line around her mouth which she wiped away on her sleeve.

"Today, I bring you a daughter," she whispered, her words so faint he could hardly hear, "the next child will be a son."

Yunan's eyes flickered, but his voice was warm and even.

"Eat," he encouraged her, breaking off a large chunk of bread and dipping it in the pomegranate juice, then offering it to her.

For the first time in many months, Sophia took the bread from him and smiled.

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