The morning dawned fair and crisp with the thatched roofs of the village still clinging to their icy alabaster shawls. Smoke from peat stoves drifted low over old stonewalls where it mixed with fog before rolling slowly out to sea. Gulls swooping to feed at the edge of the rocky shore rasped angrily as young boys bundled tight against the cold searched among the flotsam for driftwood to sell. A cock crowed in the distance, geese bayed, dogs barked, swine battled over their morning husk. A new day had begun.
Dreading to abandon blanket’s warm armor Gwen listened for the call that would signal the inevitable. She knew the old woman would wait until her breakfast was warm before awaking her. And as was their custom the two would start the day by the fire, toes almost in the embers as they ate their meal. The one small room with its simple open grate was actually part of a larger structure that served as manger and fodder house for the sheep they tended. The stock, manger, out buildings, as well as the surrounding land for three leagues belonged to the local Lord, a minor Knight of the Eastern Clan. The old woman bent and gray with age and no longer able to follow the flock up and down the countryside tended a small garden in the summer months and served as the village’s only midwife.
Gwen, just eleven years old had shepherded the flock for the past two years. In rain, snow and summer’s heat, the use of this simple lodging her only pay. But the thatch was good and the walls solid. The two women were well fed for the most part and at night warm and dry. They fared better than some, worked hard, told stories by the fire, and lived each day as it was given to them.
This was the only life little Gwen had ever known, the village, its people, the old woman; the sheep she cared for, this was her entire world. But soon, as the long winter drew into early spring, forces were awaking that would change her young life forever.
“Little one”, the old woman softly called, “are you awake?”
“Yes mother, I’ve just been waiting.”
Gwen knew the dear old woman wasn’t really her mother but because it pleased them both, she liked to call her that.
“Come now child, have your bread while it’s warm.”
Their breakfast consisted of bread toasted in the embers of the fire, thin butter, and warm sheep’s milk to wash it down. Gwen’s thick blonde hair was sleep tasseled with bits of straw clinging to it as she sat on her stool nibbling at her breakfast.
Staring deep into their little fire she asked, “Mother?”
“Yes little one,” the old woman answered, throwing back the thick woolen curtain that covered the room’s only window.
“Do you ever dream?”
“Dream?” the old woman said, stopping to think for a moment, “Sometimes, not as much as when I was younger, but yes, I guess I still dream.”
“What do you think they are?” Gwen asked as she turned, her blue eyes flashing as wisp of smoke danced across the sunbeams shining in through the window.
“What are dreams?” The old woman repeated, “My mother said dreams were evil, and wouldn’t let me speak of them. But I think dreams are neither good nor bad, but pictures of things we know, are will know.” Then smiling, she added, “And the one thing I know is that you need to get out with the sheep. The last thing we need is for the Master or that hateful son of his coming by and finding them still in the sheds. Now finish your milk and be gone with you.”
Smiling back, the little girl quickly drained her rough wooden cup before washing her face and running a comb through her long hair. As she reached for the oilskin wrap warming by the fire, her eyes suddenly widened as she spotted her old shepherd’s bag lying on the floor.
“Oh Mother!” she said, “I almost forgot, look at what I found!” Grabbing the tattered bag off the floor, Gwen reached in and brought out the Chalice.
The cup caught the light and reflected it like moonlight off water. The vessel was iridescent, golden with fine etchings spiraling from around the rim down to its base. Gwen reached and placed the cup in the old women’s trembling hands. Then, feeling her about to swoon, Gwen grabbed her arm and helped her to a stool.
“Draw me some water dear,” the old woman managed to rasp, as she clutched the golden vessel to her breast. After a couple of sips from the ladle, the old woman’s breathing began to slow, and the spell seemed to have passed. She patted the little girl’s hand, touched by the concern in her eyes.
"I’m alright little one,” she said, smiling weakly. “I’m afraid my old heart was just tested, and Fate (Fate was considered a Deity, or at least a controlling power over one’s life) almost failed me.” Placing the cup on her thin knees she took the young girl’s hands in hers, “Where did you find this thing child?”
“On the ridge,” Gwen told her, “You know, the one we call King’s head because of the ring of stone on top. I forgot all about it until just now. I was so tired last night that I nearly fell asleep at sup on my stool. Did I do something wrong?” she added.
“No, of course not child”, the woman replied, giving the little hands a squeeze before once again picking up the cup. “It’s just that I’ve seen something like this before, in a book, a drawing, but it can’t be.
“I don’t understand,” the little girl softly said, staring at the shimmering gold. She now remembered how the light of it seemed to leap up at her in the twilight as she hurried to catch up with the flock. Timidly, as if she was afraid of the answer, she asked, “Do you know to whom it belongs?”
Gwen was old enough to understand that something like this was a treasure. If she and the old woman could sell it, they would have plenty for a while. Thievery was punished severely, however, so it was important to know if someone else could lay a claim. It had been a hard winter, they had survived but were not strangers to sickness and depravation, so their options would have to be considered carefully.
“Yes child, I think I know who it belonged to. If this is the cup spoken about in the old songs, then it is very old, and very precious”. She turned the cup to slowly trace the fine etchings with her fingertips. “But first about you,” the old woman continued, placing the cup aside, “Why were you asking about dreams this morning?”
“I don’t know,” Gwen answered in a small voice, looking down at her feet.
“Yes you do,” the old woman said raising the little chin with her fingers so that she could look into her eyes. “What have you seen?”
“Strange things Mother,” the girl finally answered. “A land covered by sand for as far as the eye can see, and large, strange beast, like oxen, but with longs legs, and mounds of fur on their backs. And music, I’ve never heard such music, and,” She paused.
“Go on child”, the old woman encouraged.
“A young girl, with hair, blue black as a raven’s wing, and skin the color of,” she paused and stared up at the rafters thinking for a moment. “Like fresh drawn mead,” she finished.
The old woman sighed and looked into the fire. After a moment she began speaking. “I want you to take the flock up to the low hills.”
“But-,” Gwen started.
“Listen little one,” the old woman interrupted her, “Do as I say, get the sheep settled and I’ll send the Wheel Wright’s boy to relieve you at midday. I need some time to think.”
Although Gwen still had a lot of questions she of course would do as she was asked. She finished bundling up for the short trek over the rocky meadow. Kissing the old woman on the cheek she pulled on her wrap and scarf before opening the door. As she closed the heavy door behind her, she caught a glimpse of the old woman sitting by the fire. At that moment, Gwen felt she had never loved the old soul more. As she made her way around to the pens she said a silent prayer, hopping that the golden cup would somehow change their fortunes.
As her young ward left, the room was returned to the shadowy glow of the hearth. Clotild picked up the Chalice and held it at arms length to study it. In her excitement before she was afraid she was going to say too much. Soon Gwen must know the truth, about it all, she thought. But she had to make sure.
Except for a little dirt ground into the hammer marks around the flared base, the cup shined as if brand new. Could it really be the talisman spoken about in the Tome? She thought. Getting unsteadily to her feet, her tired bones creaking as she stood, the old woman walked over to a chest of drawers sitting next to the far wall. Drawing a key out of her tunic, she fitted it into the lock and turned. Reaching in, she pulled out a rough-woven sack and carried it back to the fire.
Carefully placing the cup on a stool opposite her, she sat the sack on the floor and untied the leather cord. The first item she withdrew was a folded quilted blanket of fine silk, embroidered with a crest of gold and silver spun thread. Next, a small purse that jingled as she set it aside. The last item was an old, cracked leather-bound book, the binding threadbare with most of the brittle yellow pages loose.
Gingerly placing it across her lap, Clotild closed her eyes remembering other times when she had sat before a fire as a little girl, listening to stories read from this very book. With a steely sigh, she turned a couple of pages and began to read.
This is the written lore of the most sacred as passed down to me from the Elders. I swear my words as penned are true and correct to the best of my humble ability. Jacqueline, Sister of the First Order
The Chalice appears to be gold, but of a remarkably hard and durable metallurgy that is unknown to me. It is unadorned except for these runes, tooled in the tongue of the scholars.
The old women read the rest of the page before slowly closing the book. “My dear, dear child”, she whispered to the empty room and the glowing fire.
"Nephi, you must dry your eyes, your path has been set, just as mine was for me. This is the way it is, the way it has always been."
"But why do I have to go, maybe if you spoke to father?"
"No!" her mother said sharply, "Listen to what I am saying".
Throwing herself on a stack of pillows, Nephi started to sob.
Her mother began again, softer this time, "Your father has been blessed with many sons, and the wishes of a daughter or of a wife are of no importance to him. The gold he receives is his lust and the Caliph has mountains of it they say. It is to him you have been sold."
Nephi turned her red and swollen eyes on the older woman. "I'll kill anyone who touches me, or I'll kill myself, I swear it!"
"My poor daughter", her mother shook her head, "Even in that we are not free, you may indeed kill yourself, but know this; the retribution would be horrible. The Caliph would exact 10 times the amount he paid for you. It would ruin your father, and kill me."
She reached and covered one of her daughter's hands with hers. "Listen my child, life in a royal harem can be-pleasurable, and there are distractions. And Nephi," her mother added, lowering her eyes, "The plant of the opium, it is an escape of sorts. I…" her words faltered, "It is how I've managed to survive," she whispered.
Nephi closed her eyes, what tears she was capable of crying were spent. She knew she was truly alone and that there was no escape. She would leave her home to become consort to a man she had never met, surrounded by strangers.
"When do I leave?" she somehow managed to ask.
"At dawn," was her mother's only reply.
The winds had settled and stars innumerable shown bright in the cold desert sky. Camels chomped noisily in their feedbags and stomped their large feet as the men worked to load the heavy packs on the protesting animals. Common slaves, those destined for the trade in Zanzibar, along with skilled servants already consigned, sat in small groups and drank strong, sweet coffee, sharing pieces of bread broken from large round loafs.
The leader of the caravan, richly dressed with a spotless turban approached a group of slaves as they squatted around a small fire. "Eunuch!" he called.
Al-Hadi cringed as a couple of the men around him snickered. He rose to his feet determined to keep his dignity. "Yes my grace?" He answered in the man's Arabic, one of the three dialects and four languages he spoke flawlessly.
"The Caliph's Vizier has purchased a girl. I am to deliver her on pain of death to Baghdad in a fortnight. You are responsible for her," the large bellied man said poking a fat finger into Al-Hadi's chest. "She is to be protected; no man is to touch her- do you understand, Eunuch?"
Al-Hadi did understand the caravanserai; the fact that he was a Eunuch made him a perfect nursemaid for the little whore. He bowed his head and answered, "Yes my grace, I will watch her like a hawk."
"See that you do," the man said, and then leaning closer he added with a leer, showing his strong white teeth. "I may not be able to take your balls, but I'll flay your Egyptian hide, by the gods I swear it."
"Yes my grace," Al-Hadi said again, nodding and swallowing hard.
The leader looked over to where a group of boys were fighting with a camel, its load slipping perceptibly as it strained against its lead. "No, no, you bastards", he cursed, forgetting Al-Hadi and hurrying away to deal with one more difficulty in getting the 100 camel caravan ready to leave by dawn.
Al-Hadi handed his cup to a passing servant girl and tossed his remaining piece of bread to a group of dogs. His appetite had suddenly left him.
It was enough that he was being sold. The son of his previous owner, the Sultan of Andalucia, had died at the ripe, but disappointing age of 60. The son however, obviously felt that his services as scribe, accountant, architect, and anyone of the numerous other talents he possessed, where no longer needed. The money hungry mongrel, he thought.
He had been comfortable there, and at 30 he was do for a little comfort. The Caliph while undoubtedly richer than the Sultan, had scores of scribes, accountants, and architects, he would have to start at the bottom and claw his way back to the top, and at his age, no small task. Maybe this girl, this new whore destined for the Caliph's couch could be a start, he thought. If he performed this duty well then others might follow, ones to get him noticed.
As the early morning continued its march, tents were folded, animals packed, and a couple of heads loped off for good measure, but the confusing troop, although later than planed was soon amassed waiting the order to move.
Nephi waited under the shade of a small palm, the sun was barely up but the heat had already started to make the desert shimmer. Soon it would be almost unbearable, but as she understood it, the plan was to reach the Al-Marfi springs by early afternoon, where they would rest during the hottest part of the day before continuing on, well past sundown.
Nephi watched as a slight but well muscled man made his way to where she was standing. He was dressed in a cotton sarong with a tan over-mantle, his head was shaven as were is legs and arms. He walked directly up to her and bowed.
"The lady Nephi I presume?" he asked. Giving her the senior title, knowing full well her real position.
"No kind sir, I am but a minor daughter of Qutayba, on my way to join the house of the Caliph.
The lack of guile of the young girl surprised him, and people did not surprise him often. "Ah," he replied, "May I call you Nephi then?"
"Yes, please do, but I'm afraid you have me at a disadvantage."
"I am Al-Hadi, soon to be of the household of the Caliph as well."
"You are Egyptian?"
"Yes, I have that honor. I am also to have the honor of being your escort on or long road. Where is your train, your servants?" He said looking around.
"What you see is all I have; my father said my new master would provide for me. I leave his house as I came into it, with nothing," she said, looking at the rocky sand.
Once again Al-Hadi is taken aback by the eloquence of this young one. She can hardly be more than 12 or 13 he thought. She is handsome though; even with his physical modification he could appreciate it. Feel it, no, but recognize it, yes.
Just then, two men of arms working for Al-Wahab roughly escorted a tall black woman to where Nephi and Al-Hadi were standing. "Are you the Eunuch?" They asked.
"I am Al-Hadi," he answered, strangely embarrassed in front of the young girl.
"This, is being taken to the Caliph as well", one of the men said, indicating the bound slave. Al-Wahab told us to bring her to you; he said the same instructions go for the Nubian, and that you would know what he meant."
Al-Hadi looked up at the imposing African, she stool at least 6 foot tall. Her short, cropped hair crowned her skull and accentuated her face. Her eyes were wide and intelligent, and were currently intently focused on Al-Hadi. Muscles rippled along her stomach as she pulled against her restraints, the sinewy strength of her arms and legs very evident. She was nude from the waist up and had rings of copper on both wrists.
The men roughly pushed her onto her knees and handed Al-Hadi the rope holding the women's arms behind her back.
"She's your problem now," they said, laughing as they walked away.
Nephi looked at the woman, even on her knees she seemed proud, she then noticed the pale stripes across the woman's broad shoulders. Not fresh, but no one could fail to recognize the marks of the lash.
"By the gods what have I done to deserve your wrath," Al-Hadi lamented to the sky. Then jerking on the rope he indicated the woman should get to her feet. She stayed on her knees and looked up defiantly at the small man. Al-Hadi raised his arm to backhand the woman, but Nephi stepped in-between them.
"My good Egyptian" she pleaded, "Do you think that is necessary?"
Al-Hadi considered striking the girl he was so flustered, "By the gods," he repeated, "Then what do you suggest I do?" He asked between clinched teeth.
"How about talking to her?" Nephi said turning, almost standing eye to eye with the tall woman.
"My name is Nephi," She said, pointing to herself. "Nephi," she repeated again.
When the woman did not respond Nephi turned and looked back over her shoulder towards Al-Hadi a little chagrined. "At least I tried," she said, shrugging her shoulders.
When the woman spoke it startled both of them, her voice was low and raspy. Nephi didn't understand the words but smiled up at Al-Hadi in triumph. "See?" Nephi told him before turning once again to look at the woman, "She's telling us her name".
Nephi sounded out her own name slowly, pointing at herself as she did. The woman said one word, stretching out the syllables copying Nephi.
"You see, she is saying her name."
"Fad-Sout," Nephi said the word, trying to roll her tongue around the strange language.
Nephi heard Al-Hadi's burst of laughter from behind her. Turning, she put both hands on her hips and asked the man what was so funny.
"Sorry, but Fad-Sout may indeed be her name, but I think the word was directed towards you."
"Me, Nephi smiled over at the Nubian, what did she say?"
"Roughly translated, the word means bitch." Al-Hadi managed to say before another fit of laughter took him.