The caravan moved across the desert in silence. The oppressive heat coming in waves on the air and up from the ground stifling all thought of conversation. All but a few of their party were mounted, the deep, sugary sand of the dunes making walking almost impossible. At times though, the blowing sand would reveal the sun baked desert floor, which was cracked and broken into large slabs. The animals stumbled on these, jarring riders and shifting loads.
The long, up and down strides of her camel became monotonous, causing Nephi to bump her chin on her chest as she dozed. She had covered her entire head with a cotton scarf trying to protect her eyes from the blowing sand, but feeling her own hot breath against her face only intensified her misery. The trek seemed surreal, half dream, half living nightmare.
When her camel stopped, Nephi unwrapped her face and looked around. They had reached the Al-Marfi oasis just outside Palmyra, and because of the late start, it was decided they would encamp here for the night. The twenty or so acres surrounding the ancient artesian spring looked green and inviting. There were date palms, figs, citrus fruits and a small stand of barley.
Al-Hadi fussed over the small open tent being set-up for him and his new charges. He wanted it far enough away from the main party to discourage interest in the women, but close enough that they would have access to the foodstuffs. He had picked a small grove boarding a small dry wash and cajoled the workers to set them up there.
Nephi was exhausted by the trip. Once they were settled she bathed in the spring under the watchful eye of Al-Hadi. The Nubian for her part seemed to have taken the journey in stride. She squatted under a knotted fig tree, sitting in silence. Al-Hadi had released her arms but had secured one of her ankles to a tree with a short length of chain. Feeling renewed by the bath Nephi carried a jar of water over to the bound slave and offered her some. Having gotten off to a bad start she was determined to try to get to know the imposing African. The woman took the offered jar in silence, poured water over her head and shoulders before drinking her fill.
Their little camp arranged to his liking, Al-Hadi striped down to his sarong and lounged against a pile of water skins enjoying the coolness of the evening. "They are savage looking aren't they?" He said, indicating the Nubian, as he sucked on a fig. “The Nubians were once a great kingdom, not as great as Egypt,” he added. “But look at us now, both slaves.”
Nephi sat down beside Al-Hadi arranging her robe on the ground so she could recline.
"Have you always been a slave?" She asked, picking a ripe fig out of the bowl.
"Yes, I was born a slave in Egypt where my mother was consort to a Roman merchant. He treated us well enough, and I dare say he spared no expense in my education. Money well spent in my opinion, as I am more than proficient in any number of aptitudes. At eighteen however, I became too educated and valuable to remain where I was. I was sold to the Centurions to help work on the palisades of Antioch. A design I am rather proud of if I do say so myself."
Nephi picked up the bowl of figs and offered it to the Nubian who took a couple and nodded, a thank you Nephi presumed.
"I wish I knew her name," Nephi said to no one in particular. "Do you think she'd tell you if you asked?" She asked, looking over at Al-Hadi.
He barked a command that Nephi couldn't understand.
The dark woman just sat where she was, her eyes hooded as if board.
"We know she's not a mute," Nephi said, wondering why it bothered her she was unable to make a connection with the strange woman.
"What did you ask her?"
"I ordered her to tell me her name," Al-Hadi said, looking up to study the sun to gage the time. "We've got a couple of hours before it starts to get cold. I'm going to go collect some dung for the fires and see about dinner."
"Ask her nicely," Nephi told him, looking up at the man as he stood.
"Ask her what?"
"Ask her name again, but ask her nicely".
"I told you," he tried to explain to the child, "she's a savage, the only use I can see for her is in the arena."
Nephi didn't say anything; she just looked up at him with her large brown eyes.
Al-Hadi cursed, jerking his sarong as he rearranged the material in exasperation. Then rolling his eyes he exhaled and walked up to the dark woman and bowed.
Nephi watched as he spoke the unintelligible language, gesturing back towards where she sat a couple of times. After a few moments he bowed again. When no answer was forthcoming he stepped away without another word.
Nephi looked at the Nubian who was now staring at her. Nephi bowed her head a little, not knowing what else to do.
The woman spoke, her accent was thick but Nephi could understand the words. "The half man is a fool." She said simply.
"You do speak Arabic," Nephi stated rather dumbly.
The woman didn't answer.
"You know my name is Nephi, may I ask yours?"
"I am Amanitore, daughter of the Candace of Ethiopia," she answered.
"Were you sold into slavery," Nephi asked innocently. She had little knowledge of areas or people outside her own home.
Amanitore smiled. "No, I was captured by slavers two new moons ago, not far from my home."
"I'm sorry; I was sold by my father to the Caliph of Baghdad. I think that is where you are being taken as well."
Amanitore looked intently at the young Arab girl. She had watched her today, as she watched everyone, and this girl was different somehow, she could feel it. She was biding her time until she could escape. She had endured the lash and other worse abuses because nothing mattered except seeing her home again. But now she was unsettled that she had decided to reveal the fact she could speak the desert tongue.
"Do you know the goddess Hathor?" She asked.
Nephi shook her head no.
"She is mine," Amanitore said, proudly holding her fist over her heart. "I will say a prayer for you, that this Caliph will be swallowed by locus."
Nephi smiled at her. "Thank you," she said, bowing to the woman.
"But you must do me a favor as well," she said. "Do not tell the half man that we spoke, it will be our secret."
Bowing her head again, Nephi accepted the deal.
Al-Hadi returned with a reed basket of dried dung and palm leaves and set about making their fire. "I've got a boy bringing us a loaf and a bit of lamb. It seems we warrant a better choice of larder than I thought. I guess someone finally realized my worth after all," he said, scooping out a shallow hole for the fire. "It's about time," he added.
The straw made Nephi’s neck itch, but the bed was soft and warm. She could hear the whistle of the cold wind blowing outside and feel the warmth of the fire on her face as she slept.
The sound of voices pulled her from the dream. She lay wrapped in her robe on the ground, there was no wind, and their small fire had gone out. But the voices were real, the alarm had been sounded, raiders were in the camp.
Nephi couldn’t tell what was happening. People were running everywhere, camels were bellowing, men were shouting. An arrow sliced past her head to pierce one of the water skins next to where she lay. A young serving girl Nephi recognized from this morning was scooped up as she fled, the girl’s screams fading away as she and the rider were both swallowed up by the night.
Nephi looked to where Al-Hadi lay, peering out from behind a pile of trade goods.
“Get down girl!” He shouted at her.
She turned to look for the Nubian. She was in her place, still chained but tense and ready; her eyes seemed to shine white in the night.
A cloaked rider appeared right in front of them. His horse wide eyed and with nostrils flared. He reached to grab Nephi by the hair but she ducked under his grasp and scooted away.
With a curse the man dismounted and drew a short curved knife from his sash. Nephi danced from foot to foot, keeping a small palm tree between them.
“Help me!” She screamed.
Al-Hadi started to get to his feet but hesitated. What was he doing he asked himself. But then he lunged for the man only to trip in the hole where their fire had been. He landed on his knees behind the attacker, who at that moment stepped back, falling over Al-Hadi onto his back.
Al-Hadi expected to feel the blade in his ribs as he lay there, eyes squeezed shut, but instead he heard a gurgle.
He looked up to see the Nubian wrapped around the fallen man from behind, she had one arm around his neck, and the other held the man’s arm holding the knife.
As she squeezed the raider’s black headscarf fell away reveling wide, bulging eyes. His mouth opened and closed as he fought for air, exposing two rows of rotting yellow stumps that were once teeth. His boots kicked and scraped at the ground a few more times, then became still.
Amanitore rolled the man off her, but not before freeing the blade from his fingers.
Al-Hadi watched the man die, he also watched as the Nubian took the knife. Not good he thought. But before he could ponder this knew development two more men crashed into their small camp. One grabbed Al-Hadi by the neck, bending it back as he prepared to cut his throat. Al-Hadi squealed.
Nephi too had watched as the Nubian had dispatched the raider. Rather easily she thought. Now another man had Al-Hadi. Without thinking she darted from the grove and leaped on the man’s back wrapping her arms around his neck and her legs around his waist. She squeezed with all her might, but determination was not strength.
The man let go of Al-Hadi and slung her to the ground. He drew his knife to stab her when his partner grabbed his wrist. Horns were blowing and the raiders were leaving the camp.
“Bring her,” the other man said, already moving off into the night.