Tears in a Dry Land Ch. 03byYgraine©
Fear surrounded her. It was women who were responsible for teaching her to dance, who taught her how to please a man, who had been relentless in their efforts to turn her into someone she had never been. They brooked no shirking and whipped her shortcomings until she met their exacting standards. There was no kindness in their world, only a grudging acceptance if she performed well.
Now Sophia faced other terrors. Yunan was a rich man, a powerful man, so must have many wives and concubines within his household. She could not hide her pregnancy from these serving women. She knew his wives would be furious she was carrying his child and might seek to destroy her, but she knew she had no alternative other than go with them. She hoped they would not beat her too hard to make her lose the baby.
The apartments she was shown were not sumptuous. They were well furnished, but not opulent. Gathering what little strength remained, Sophia asked the women if there was somewhere she could bathe and make herself respectable before she paid her respects to Yunan's wives.
She wondered why several of the woman smiled, quickly covering their mirth with their hands or turning away as if to save her embarrassment. A young, very self-possessed attendant inclined her head, explaining a deep bath had been filled with warm water for her ease. A selection of fresh garments would also be made available for her to choose from. She need only ask for anything else she wished.
"Thank you," Sophia murmured, "some oils, if you would be so kind?"
Again the head nodded, gently, "Of course, lady."
Sophia made her way slowly towards the bath, trying to ignore everyone else around her. Always a very private person when she was allowed, she was not used to other people seeing her body since it grew and changed. Painfully, she removed her clothes and folded them neatly in a pile.
She sensed some of the women moving forward as if to offer help, but an imperceptible shake of the young woman's head stopped them. Sophia remembered a time when she would have stood and let others help her, but that seemed like a lifetime ago.
Almost silently, the serving women withdrew all but one- the very confident girl - who busied herself setting out clothing on a fine lacquered stand nearby, then brought a small silver tray of metal and glass bottles. She watched as Sophia carefully lowered herself down into the bath, feeling the blissful heat of the water on her aching limbs.
The young woman noted the bruises on Sophia's arms and legs and back - some half healed and some fresh. The Master of the stronghold was not given to rescuing pregnant women from abusive situations and she wondered what story this one had to tell.
"Shall I fetch water to cool or add heat, lady?"
Sophia's closed eyes flew open. She regarded the young woman with some confusion, forcing her to repeat the question, "If you could add heat, I should be grateful, thank you. The last part of the journey was cold and we could not afford the time to stop and wrap ourselves in blankets as we did previous evenings. Your Master was most anxious to reach his destination."
She lay back in the water, soaking for a while, almost asleep. On the edge of her consciousness, she thought she heard a murmur of voices, but when she opened her eyes, she was alone. With a deep sigh, she remembered her hair must be washed. Slowly and painfully, she unwrapped the coils from her head, then let it lie on the surface.
The water was noticeably warmer although no one had brought any kettle or cauldron of any kind. Sophia reached out to take handfuls of soft soap from a dish by her side and washed her hair, submerging herself several times to wash the soap away.
As she got to her knees to climb out of the bath, the young woman was immediately at her side to help her climb out, wrapping her hair and her body with soft, light, luxuriant towels.
"The Master asks," the girl began, taking up a towel and carefully beginning to dry Sophia's feet. "The Master asks if you would join him to dine - if you feel sufficiently refreshed." The girl hesitated, then smiled, "I told him you would join him when you were ready, lady."
Sofia was horrified by such deliberate discourtesy. "Was he not displeased by such an answer?"
"You have travelled a hard journey. It takes more than a bath to be rid of the road. Men do not consider such things. It is as much as one can do to have them bathe sufficiently." Sofia found a smile playing on her lips at the girl's perfect command of the situation, something her companion noticed immediately. "Do not be concerned, the Master understood completely once I explained."
Once more she was greeted with the quiet smile, the downcast eyes, "It was my pleasure."
Given confidence by the girl's manner, Sophia said, "May I ask for your help with my hair? My back hurts and it is difficult to lift my arms above my head."
"How may I help?" The young woman smiled openly, happy to be able to assist Sophia at last.
"If you could rub my hair until the excess moisture is removed and then wrap it in the towel. I will oil myself, then perhaps you could brush my hair for me, if I could borrow a brush?"
"Certainly. I have laid out a brush and combs - fine and broad, there, beside your clothing."
Sofia moved slowly over to the lacquered table. She picked up one of the combs, studying it closely before returning it. The shape and colour of the tortoiseshell brought back further memories of times when others combed her long hair. She remembered a nurse when she was small, singing to her, songs of her people. Without thinking she hummed a half remembered tune, while the young woman unwrapped the towel and stood behind her, using soft, sure movements to work the towel through her hair.
"Lady, if I may be permitted to say, your hair has such a fine colouring – unusual in these lands."
Sophia smiled, "There are some who say my mother's mother was from a people a long way from here. They would not say openly she was a slave taken as booty during a northern raid, for fear of offending my mother, but it may explain why my colouring is as it is."
Although the words came readily to her lips, she was surprised by the memory. It was a long time since she had allowed herself to think or even wonder about her mother. She knew her mother was no longer alive yet the initial grief of her passing was already spent. Now more pressing matters filled her mind once more.
"I have to ask," she began, "how many wives does Yusan keep? His children too, they must be many."
The young woman almost dropped the towel, stammering something of an apology. "Lady - I .. may I speak? Although it is not to criticise...?"
Sophia was immediately contrite, "Please do. Forgive me if I have said something I shouldn't. I do not know your customs."
"Who? Where? How did you hear that name, Yunan?"
"Your Master. He said his name was Yunan. The people of the town, Darfour, where I was held, called him by the same title. I presumed it was his name."
"Ah." the girl's relief was evident, "Did he say that his name was Yunan, or that people called him so? You see, 'Yunan' is what they call him - the people here," she blushed a little, " - my people. It is not his name; it just means 'Greek'. They call him 'The Greek'. His name is Kallikrates."
"I see." Sofia searched through the haze of memories, trying to recall what she heard him say or thought she heard him say. She frowned, remembering the sound of that name, Killikrates.
She remembered a tall, important man visiting her parents when she was a very small child and could run and play and entertain the grownups without rebuke. A man who gave her a comb, who said it went with her hair. A comb of the same style as those laid out for her use now. There had to be a connection.
Sophia stood, staring into space for several minutes, until her companion coughed discretely to draw her attention back to the present.
"Lady, you asked for oils to be brought. Do you need any assistance?"
Sophia looked wistfully at the tray of oils. "I should like to oil my skin. It is stretching so, but I do not think I have the energy."
"May I help, then?" she finished collecting the used towels and folded her hands neatly in front of her. "There are many scented oils here, please choose what would please you."
"I don't want to inconvenience you," Sophia was very conscious of the length of time she was taking to bathe and make herself comfortable, but she had no energy to rush anything. "You must have many other duties."
"This evening I have no other duties. The Master has placed me at your disposal." Her hands opened as she spoke and she smiled freely.
"Your Master is very kind. Do you have any rose geranium?"
The young woman looked through the bottles on the tray, opening some that were opaque or silver to scent the contents, until she lifted a darkly small, coloured, polished, stone bottle, closing her eyes in pleasure as she inhaled.
"Ah... I think this will please you." She tipped the bottle, cupping her palm to pour a little into her hand. She brought the hand closer to Sofia, smiling encouragingly at her, "Will this serve?"
Sofia nodded, returning her smile. "It is strange how scent takes you back to other places. It reminds me so much of happy times."
The girl nodded in agreement, "It is often so. More than sight or sound, smell can light darkened corners or open locked rooms. Lady, would you care to recline on the couch, so I might soothe your skin and muscles?"
She drew Sophia onto a soft leather couch, where she sat, still swathed in towels.
"Thank you. I was just thinking of my aunt. It was she who insisted I learn both how to give a massage and to receive them."
Her companion listened as she worked the oil from her cupped palm into her fingers and hands, flexing them, softening her own skin.
"Have you practised this skill from time to time?" The girl's voice was neutral, but clearly interested. Not waiting for an answer, she gently encouraged Sophia to lie down on her side.
"My aunt taught me many things. How to relax tired muscles, relieve pain for women and girls, help my mother's headaches when she wasn't well. I worked with and blended many oils. My father trusted me to negotiate with the oil sellers when they came to the house."
"Ah - and oil traders know how to sweeten a bargain."
Sophia sat up, her face suddenly darkened, her breathing thickening as she remembered something she obviously did not wish to recall.
"Except sometimes....they are not who they say they are."
The girl sensed a change in her, not pressing the point or asking questions but gently encouraging her to lie once more upon her side, spreading out fresh towels across the fabric of the couch. Sophia acquiesced but her whole body tensed as if readying herself for further flight and her fear was palpable.
"When I apply oil, or free knotted muscles, I usually begin with the neck and shoulders. Would you have me begin there, or would you rather choose another place?"
Her soft words brought Sophia back from her place of fear and she readily agreed, mumbling apologies for her inattention.
"I'm sorry," she explained, "for so long my mind has been dead. Now it's as if a blindfold has been taken off and memories are pouring back. Some are memories to treasure, but others will keep me awake at nights for years to come."
"There is no need to explain to me, lady. I am here for your assistance; to listen should you require attention or to be silent and still should you need calm. The neck and shoulders, then.?"
"Yes, please." Sophia was silent for a moment, then with a sudden burst of confidence she said, "Tell me about your Master. I know him yet I do not know him."
The girl's voice was calm and light. "The Master? I think few know him truly."
With a dry towel, she lifted Sofia's hair clear of her shoulders and neck, and as she spoke she began to gently apply pressure to the woman's neck and upper shoulders, feeling her begin to relax as she continued her ministrations.
"He is a man of power and there is wealth, although," her thumbs circled around tight areas of muscle, "he prefers to conceal much of his wealth." She pressed the heels of her palms into the skin above the shoulder blades and worked in twisting motions.
"If there is wealth, then does he have enemies?" Sophia asked.
Her companion poured more oil into her hands and warmed it, the subtle, sweet fragrance filling the air. "I am speaking of matters you could find out by asking anyone and yes, he has enemies."
Sofia shuddered. "It would be safer for him if he killed me now."
The girl seemed untroubled by Sofia's remark, merely asking permission as her hands softly loosened the towel at Sofia's back, slackening it so she could work lower.
Her hands slipped down, working the delicate oil into the skin, sweeping down and releasing, then slipping down from higher up again, hand following hand.
"The Master almost never does what people think is best for him," she commented after a while, "and certainly not what his enemies expect."
Tears began to slide silently down Sophia's wind burnt cheeks, "He has been very kind, but I could bring him such harm, such misery. He does not know the extent of their hatred."
The girl's fingers splayed out on Sophia's back, stroking in sure, strong movements, from one side and then the other.
"He said something once to me," she remarked. "He said, 'Give me an enemy who hates me; that man is half-crippled.'"
Sophia looked at the girl in some surprise, this was not a remark normally made in front of women, let alone directly to them.
"He must trust you a great deal to make such a remark on your presence."
The girl stopped, as if thinking about this for the first time, then resumed her firm strokes.
"I have been with him for many years."
"And he has kept you safe?"
Sophia sighed. "I hope it is never otherwise for you."
The girl's hands swept round to Sofia's side, moving under the fabric of the loosened towel.
"He seeks to protect you also."
"Maybe. It is the child who must be protected, I am already lost."
Her delicate hand passed her eyes as if to wipe away the tears, unnoticed. Once more her companion wondered about the child, but her gentle hands never stopped their movements. Long, languorous, full-handed strokes, make Sophia's skin glisten and glow. This time when Sophia sighed, her whole body relaxed, despite her previous unease.
"Are you warm enough, Lady? I should imagine that the journey on horseback was less than comfortable." She said, freeing the remaining length of the towel from Sofia, to leave her naked, before her hands swept down to gently knead her buttocks seeking the tension, and the soreness that must be there.
"It seemed endless. The hardest part was not being able to leave the men to see to my own needs, even though they turned away. At least they did not bind me as my captors did. Then I thought I would die from shame and their cruel laughter."
"They are good men those three, but men. They are so used to each other's company in every circumstance, they do not think too much about other's sensitivities."
As she spoke, she worked one hand from the base of Sophia's spine, down and further down to her thighs, lifting the leg and flexing muscles to expose and locate the areas that needed working, causing Sophia to gasp, suppressing cries of pain as her companion found new and more painful knotted muscles.
The girl frowned in concentration. "I will have some words to say to him about this," she muttered under her breath. "He had no right to bring you here in such a manner, and you - how far gone now - five months is it?"
Sophia nodded, "I believe so. I have no memory of the first month, just flashes." She grunted as, with one leg bent at the knee and lifted forward slightly, the girl worked the inner muscles on the leg underneath with subtle careful motions; fingers brushing and smoothing the oil, making the skin shine.
"I don't know why, but I think it was here it must have happened."
"If you will turn, so you face me, I can work the other side and smooth oil into your abdomen and belly, to ease the stretching." Then as Sophia turned at her request, she asked casually while she refreshed the oil on her hands. "You have a memory of here?"
"When we climbed up the hill and the fortress came into sight I felt fear. I seemed to remember a door opening and loud voices and being pushed by threatening hands into a brightly lit room crowded with people, drums and cymbals pounding through my head, my body jerking in time with them, knowing the whips would strike if my movements were not in time with the rhythms they beat. I wish...I wish I could remember details, but it is all feelings and touch and smells."
The girl turned back toward Sophia, rubbing her hands, smoothing the oil into her palms. She stepped forward, kneeling on the couch close to Sophia, bringing her hands to her throat and upper chest.
"Lady, you chase your quarry too hard. Stop and rest, sit in wait and what is there will return to you."
Sofia shook her head, "You misunderstand, I chase nothing for there is nothing in my future. I only speak what I see."
"That is not for you to say."
"It is all I have heard for the past five months. Those who kept me reminded me each day I would only live as long as the child grew within me. Once I gave birth, my life would end. They would show me the dish of poison, telling me it was both odourless and tasteless so I could not refuse to eat or drink for I would never know which meal would be my last."
The girl's eyes flashed. If this woman's captors were still living, she would have words with the Master concerning the manner of their own demise.
"Not everything told is truth," she commented, "and not all truth is made evident."
Sophia sniffed, wiping her final tears away on the towel beside her. "You are very wise and very kind."
"I have learned much from a wise man."
They shared a companionable silence while the girl's small hands moved delicately across the skin of Sofia's swelling breasts, soothing and softening. Then more oil was palmed, the movements comforting and confident as oil was smoothed into her belly, making the skin softer and more supple.
Sofia gasped, "Did you feel that?"
"The little one kicks."
"She has moved so little these past days."
"She kept still on the horse," the girl explained. "My mother told me she had to ride for many days when she was eight months pregnant with me and I stayed perfectly still all that time. She thought I was lost.
"All the wise women told her not to ride so far when she was so near her time. They warned her it would make the labour more difficult and if she fell, she would lose me, but she would not stay. She wanted my father to know me from the time of my birth and he was far away, trading spices with nomads. He could not come to her so she went to him."
"How did she manage?"
"I do not know. She was a strong woman who loved horses. She passed that love to me."
"She is no longer here with you?"
"She died. I was eight years old." The girl's face was expressionless, her hands never ceasing their constant journey across Sophia skin.
"I am sorry for your loss. I was sixteen when my mother sailed across the Styx, not long after my two sisters married and moved away. I was left to look after my father and younger brothers. I do not know who cares for them now, but I am glad she was not alive to suffer with me."
The girl lifted Sophia's the right leg, crooking it as she did the left and working the muscles.
"Lady, you are here now and you are under the protection of the Master. It has been many years since his protection failed anyone." She stopped as Sophia cried out in pain and held on to her right calf. "What is it?"