Monday, November 29, 2010
Lilitu Chapters Five and Six
Okay, here's the last Lilitu excerpt you're going to get for free. If you'll recall, things had gotten real funky for our heroine at Sawaliyeh, and she'd cut a deal with her horrible stepmother Shiraz, although she really didn't expect her to honor it...
The doctor came and removed Lilitu's splint the next morning, but instead of returning to her duties, she kept to her room. This fetched her a visit by Zaghir, the Chief Steward, who said:
"Lady Shiraz just spoke to me."
Looking up from a new poem, Lilitu said: "Oh?"
"She said the physician told her---"
"That he'd removed my splint?"
"---and that you should return to work."
Lilitu had half expected this; she wondered how things were proceeding with Hamid and the dowry.
"My leg still hurts," she said. "I think I'd better keep off it."
"Please inform the lovely lady that I'm still waiting for news about my dowry."
"What are you talking about?"
"I'm not your messenger."
"As if you're not going to run straight back and tell her what I just said."
"I'll tell her what you just said, all right."
"Isn't that what I just told you?" Lilitu asked.
He huffed out, and she returned to her poem:
If only I had some step-brothers
And a chariot. What fun it would be
To scatter them in pieces out the back
As I made my getaway.
I've only a step-sister
And I like her; besides,
It would be hard to scatter her from horseback
And harder still if I was on foot…
When Zaghir came back, he was flanked by Foulah and Tirzah, two stout middle-aged maids. Lilitu assumed they were along to add some extra pressure, but their glowering presences only made the chief steward seem more pathetic.
"Get back to work," he told Lilitu.
She held up the sheet with the verse on it. "I am working," she said. "Would you like to hear my poem?"
"Lady Shiraz says---"
"Tell her I intend to hold her to our agreement."
"---that you'd better do what you're told----"
"Or what?" Lilitu asked. "She'll push me down the stairs again? Go away. And take those two sows with you."
"How rude," said Foulah.
Lilitu got up from her desk, shooed all three of them back out.
"How very rude!" said Tirzah.
Lilitu slammed the door, guessing Zaghir would soon be back, with more maids to back him up, or maybe a guard or two; she found herself actively looking forward to another confrontation. But in this she was disappointed, and when he didn't return, she went off to the kitchen to get some food. One of the cooks was sweet on her, and made her up a very nice plate.
When she got back to her room, Sayida was waiting for her---Lilitu had showed her how to pick locks, and Sayida had let herself in on more than one occasion.
"Mother's furious with you," she said.
Lilitu set the plate down on her desk, asking: "Anything new about that?"
"She says you'd better get back to work."
"Did she send you?"
"No. But I thought I should warn you. She grabbed that Zaghir fellow by the ear...''
"He's lucky she didn't push him down the steps," Lilitu said. "What did she do to you?"
"What do you mean?"
"After catching you with me," Lilitu said.
"Oh. Nothing, believe it or not. What did she do to you?"
Lilitu laughed, shaking her head.
"She kept looking between my legs...''
"Why do you think?"
Sayida cocked her head forward, eyes wide with disbelief.
"She got excited," Lilitu said.
Sayida shook her head as though someone had just struck her.
Lilitu continued: "She said she'd let the whatever give me a dowry if I let her do me."
"And what did you say?"
Sayida's hand dropped away from her mouth; her eyes opened a bit, slits of sheer disgust. "To have sex with my mother?"
"Didn't see any way around it."
"Oh, this is too much," Sayida said. "Pah. Uggh."
"I'll tell you what, you'd better watch out. If she likes me so much...''
"She doesn't like you."
"She likes my looks,'' Lilitu said. "So you'd better believe she likes yours too.''
"That's so nasty!" Sayida said.
"Has she said anything about my dowry?" Lilitu asked.
"Plenty. She and the whatever are arguing about it all the time, as far as I can tell."
Lilitu said: "She promised---"
"You must've known how that was going to turn out."
"But he's standing up for me?" Lilitu asked.
"He wants to send you off with a lot of money."
"Really," Sayida said. "For what it's worth, I think he actually loves you."
Lilitu was dabbing at her eyes before she knew it. "Then why was he so horrible to me all that time?"
Sayida tossed her hands up. "People just…do things."
Lilitu nodded. "Well, I'm going to do something myself."
"What's that?" Sayida asked.
"I think he needs to know about your mother's little proposition to me."
Sayida looked appalled. "No he doesn't."
"Yes he does."
"He'll divorce her. Throw us out."
"I doubt it," Lilitu said. "But if he does, where did you live before? With your uncle, right? Wouldn't he take you back?''
"You have nothing to worry about."
"But I won't have you anymore---"
"Sayida," Lilitu said, "you're a dear, but you won't have me anyway, because I'm going to get my dowry and go."
Sayida's chin dropped. "I suppose."
"Now," Lilitu said. "You should go, and let me eat my lunch. If I'm going to have it out with your mother, I'm going to need my strength."
After eating, she took a while to compose herself, then went upstairs to Hamid's room. She knocked, but no one answered.
The hall was shadowy; as she stood by the door, wondering if she should wait, or go looking for Hamid, a servant by the name of Annanah went by without acknowledging her presence, carrying a bucket and a lit taper. Something dark had splattered the mosaic border at the bottom of the lefthand wall; laying the bucket on the floor, she took a brush out of it and went to work, holding the taper close to the wall, its flame sputtering as little ticks of water struck it from the brush.
"What is that on the wall?" Lilitu asked.
"Lady Shiraz's plum sauce," Annanah said.
"Did she throw it?"
"At Master Hamid. And of course she waited until it dried before telling me. It's in there good between the tiles..."
Lilitu smiled to herself. Threw her plum sauce at Hamid, she thought. That was promising.
"Where are they now?" Lilitu asked, then heard Shiraz shouting downstairs. At length the Monster and Hamid appeared, coming up the steps; she was giving him an earful about the dowry, but broke off when she spotted Lilitu, halting below the stairhead.
"What do you want?" she cried.
Hamid said: "Please, lower your voice---"
Shiraz strode up into the hall towards Lilitu, who said:
"We had an agreement."
"Get out of my sight," Shiraz answered.
Coming up, Hamid asked: "What agreement?"
Lilitu looked at Shiraz. "Shall we discuss it out here in the hall?"
"What agreement?" Hamid repeated.
"It's nothing," Shiraz said.
"Then we might as well discuss it out here," Lilitu said.
Shiraz hissed a breath; then she opened the door. Lilitu stepped through first, followed by Hamid. She stopped beside the bed, turning towards him and asking:
"Are you going to let me have my dowry?"
Shiraz closed the door behind her, asking: "Why are you speaking to him?''
Lilitu ignored her, asking Hamid: "Are you?''
"We've been discussing it," he replied.
"You're not getting any of our money," Shiraz told Lilitu.
"Dear---" Hamid began.
"Shut up," she said.
"We had an agreement," Lilitu said.
"You are a lying little slut."
"Shall I tell your husband about it?" Lilitu asked.
Shiraz looked to Hamid. "Don't believe a word she says."
Very like a man most weary of listening to his wife's commands, he eyed Lilitu, who told Shiraz:
Shiraz studied Lilitu's face; Lilitu did her very best to convey, through her eyes and the set of her mouth, the fact that she was absolutely willing to reveal the whole gruesome story. But she succeeded a bit too well---apparently concluding she had no choice but to strike first, Shiraz said:
"Last night, she...offered herself---"
"She's lying!" Lilitu cried.
"---on condition that I'd let her have the dowry."
"Offered herself?" Hamid asked.
"I don't understand."
"To have sex with."
He just stared.
Shiraz said: "I played along, just to see how far she'd go---we were supposed to meet later tonight. I wasn't going to show up, of course---I was going to tell you all about it, dear husband, but then I thought, you really don't need to hear this. After all, she's inflicted so much pain on you already, and brought so much shame on this household---''
Lilitu shouted: "Filthy, filthy liar!"
Shiraz smiled, asking Hamid: "Who are you going to believe? You know about her and that boy. She takes after her mother. And what was her mother like? She'd sleep with anyone. There were all those rumors about other women...''
"I never heard anything like that," Hamid said.
"I can easily believe it," Shiraz answered. "But everyone else heard all about it---"
"Incredible," Lilitu said. She almost told how Shiraz had caught her with Sayida, caught herself and decided to leave to leave Sayida out of it, then pointed at Shiraz and continued: "She came into my room, pulled a blanket off me, looked at me naked, and told me she'd agree to the dowry if I let her do what she pleased. And because I was so desperate to get away from her, I agreed---"
Hamid began: "Are you saying---"
"She was all over me. But she just didn't know what to do."
Shiraz gestured dismissively. "Your word against mine."
Lilitu watched Hamid. He seemed to be dithering; she felt a tremendous surge of contempt for him.
He wasn't the enemy. He was weak beyond a doubt, and had been horribly foolish, but he wasn't being horribly foolish at the moment---- really, he didn't have any reason to take her word over the Monster's.
It's not as if you have any evidence, Lilitu told herself. And he has good reason to suspect you…
She had dishonored him with Oded. Her mother was a lying slut who conceived her out of wedlock...Lilitu shook her head, realizing she was stymied. In all likelihood, he didn't believe Shiraz either, but to all intents and purposes, this stalemate was defeat.
She looked at Shiraz. The Abomination smirked back.
Knows she's won, Lilitu thought. Even though she was sure it was all over, she turned to Hamid. He shrugged helplessly, as if to say:
What am I to do?
"Get out," Shiraz said.
And plucked at Lilitu's sleeve.
Lilitu barely heard the words, but that tug---something about the way it made the cloth bind at her elbow---was provocation itself. If Shiraz had stabbed her, it couldn't have been more exacerbating. Lilitu almost leaped upon The Monster then and there, and couldn't imagine why she restrained herself. But when the instant passed, her mind was greatly clarified, as though her panic, which was really quite useless, had been burned away; suddenly she hit upon a whole new tack.
"Well," she told Hamid. "If you can't believe either of us---"
"He didn't say that," Shiraz snarled.
"---put that whole matter aside."
"You're the one who raised it," Shiraz snapped.
Lilitu struggled to keep herself on course, saying: "It was never the main issue---"
"--- just give me my dowry...father."
Hamid seemed surprised to hear the word from her.
"Please," Lilitu said. "You'd decided to give it to me before any of this surfaced...marrying me to Akbar will strengthen the family, remove a source of discord here...''
Shiraz answered: "As soon as Akbar finds out what kind of slut you are, as he surely will, the family will be worse off than before."
"Father," Lilitu said. "You took responsibility for me. If you pass me on to Akbar, you've discharged your duty. It's the right thing to do, and it's in your interest."
"I'll never agree to it," Shiraz said.
"Father?" Lilitu asked.
Shiraz laughed. "As if you were sired by him! As if!"
Lilitu searched Hamid's face, trying desperately to tell if he was leaning her way. But all she could see was a look of intense inner turmoil.
"Hamid," Shiraz said, "If you give her that money----"
"Shhh," he said.
"-----I will visit the torments of the damned on you. Do you hear me, Hamid?"
He nodded slowly, a terrible resignation creeping into his expression.
"Father?" Lilitu asked.
"It's yours," he answered softly.
"What did you say?" Shiraz asked.
Not answering, he went round the bed to a large chest up against the wall.
"Don't you dare open that!" Shiraz cried.
"God bless you, father!" Lilitu called.
Shiraz's face whipped towards her. "Get OUT!" she screamed.
And snatched at Lilitu's arm again.
But this time, even though things were going her way, because things were going her way, Lilitu simply snapped; like a command from heaven, bold blood-red script flowed across her mind:
Kill the bitch.
With a shriek, she whirled towards Shiraz and drove a small fist right into the woman's handsome nose. Shiraz staggered back, clapping both hands over her face.
Lilitu looked about, spotted a small lamp, flipped the top off it, and dashed the oil in Shiraz's eyes. The Monster's hands went immediately to them, uncovering her nose, and Lilitu slammed that again. Shiraz stumbled back several more paces, blood streaming from her nostrils. Lilitu followed, stamped on one of her insteps, punched her in the stomach, then caught her right in the face when it snapped forward. Blubbering red bubbles, Shiraz straightened, struck the door; fumbling behind her, she managed to turn the handle and stumble out.
"Lilitu!" Hamid cried.
Lilitu looked back at him. He had the chest open and was holding two small swollen sacks.
"Here's your dowry!" he answered. "Just stop it!"
But Lilitu was too angry to have any of this, and ran out after Shiraz, noticing, dimly, that she didn't hear any pursuit from him.
The Monster was halfway to the stairs; between her and Lilitu stood Annanah, who was still holding her brush and that taper---Lilitu dashed by her, plucked the taper from her, and flung it at the back of Shiraz's head. Sparks flew, and oil-soaked hair ignited; Shiraz halted at the stairhead, beating at her scalp, whirling about screaming. After a few seconds, she managed to slap the flames out and stood whimpering, facing Lilitu, who had stopped a few feet from her, looking at the smoke rising from Shiraz's head, sniffing.
"What a stink," Lilitu said.
Then she shoved the Monster over the edge with both hands.
Sandals flying from her feet, Shiraz went down in a whirlwind of thrashing limbs, knees, elbows and head knocking against the stairs. At the bottom she lay still, and Lilitu thought perhaps that she was dead; but then the bitch got to her feet and stumbled drunkenly off down the hall, trailing smoke.
Lilitu never saw her again.
"What's that smell?" Hamid asked, coming up at her side, the sacks dangling from his hand.
"Her head," Lilitu answered.
He fanned a hand in front of his face. "Phew. Did she put it out?"
Lilitu nodded. "Just before I pushed her---"
He winced, looking down to the bottom. "Where'd she go?"
"Somewhere," Lilitu answered.
"I think you'd better leave now," he said, and hung the sacks over her shoulder by two thongs which bound them together. Lilitu grunted under the weight.
"She had it coming," she said.
He made no reply.
"She was lying, not me."
"It doesn't matter,'' he said.
"Are you going to divorce her?"
"I don't know," he answered. "It's not your concern anymore. Find Nadjibullah.''
"That old guardsman?" Lilitu asked.''The one who was kicking Oded in the mouth?''
"Forget about that,'' Hamid said. "Oded was shit. He didn't do you any favors. I've already talked to Nadjibullah. He knows what to do. He'll take you to Akbar.''
Hearing Akbar's name, Lilitu decided then and there that she might be able to stomach Oded's tormentor after all...indeed, she felt a sudden rush of gratitude, and said: ''Oh...oh...thank you...''
Hamid put his fingers to her lips.
"Be happy," he said.
And kissed her on the forehead.
She started down the steps, but he added:
"I'd rather you didn't run into Shiraz again."
Lilitu wasn't afraid of that, but deferred to him anyway; feeling full of accomplishment, she headed back up into the corridor, went by him, and down a different flight of stairs.
She asked for Nadjibullah in the guardroom, but he wasn't there, and no one knew where he was. While she was debating where to look next, she remembered Sayida, and told herself she must say goodbye. She searched just about everywhere; finally one of the maids, a pretty little recent arrival (Lilitu didn't even know her name) smiled knowingly and said:
"Why don't you look down in the wine-cellar?"
Lilitu was puzzled. What would Sayida be doing down there at this time of day, and without her? And furthermore, why would this maid know about the love-nest? A dark suspicion crossed Lilitu's mind, but, certain that Sayida loved her, she brushed it aside.
Arriving at the entrance to the wine-cellar, she stuck her head through to see if the "wine-watchman," as she and Sayida called the fellow, was about. He was seated in the usual place but uncharacteristically conscious, eating a piece of flatbread; he seemed amused to see her.
"I'd wager you're looking for Sayida," he said.
"Actually, I---" At a loss for a lie, Lilitu pulled her head back out, but he called after her:
"Don't worry. Won't say a thing. Paid up for the month."
She leaned back through. "By who?"
"Your twin. I woke up and caught her a week ago, and we made a deal." He smiled."Guess where she is."
Lilitu went behind the barrels and knocked on the door. There was no answer, but she heard some scuffling behind the wood.
"I know you're in there, Sayida," she said.
Still no answer.
"Father's given me my dowry, and I'm leaving, and I just wanted to say goodbye."
More scuffling; she heard the lock snick, and opened the door. Several lamps were burning inside; wearing a skimpy shift, hair dishevelled, Sayida was crouching near the entrance. Someone was huddled under a blanket against the wall in back, bare toes, gleaming with rings, peeking out from under the cover.
"Who is that?" Lilitu asked, laying the gold-sacks down.
Sayida just showed her an embarrassed smile. Lilitu went over and tugged the blanket down. There was the Lark, quite naked, gathering her legs up against her chest with both arms.
"She's wearing my earrings," Lilitu said, working her shoulder. "Those were my mother's...''
"Sorry," Sayida answered.
"I thought you loved me," Lilitu said.
"I do," Sayida replied. "But I'm a slut. Said so right from the start. You can't trust me."
"Should I leave, My Lady?" the Lark asked.
"No," Sayida said. "Once Lilitu's said goodbye...''
"Who else are you fucking?" Lilitu asked.
"Well, I'm not fucking them all at the moment, if you see what I mean. But I have been with every good-looking person in this house, I think."
"What do you mean when you said you love me?"
"I don't know. What does it mean? When it comes to doing it with you, I'd take a lot more risks than I would with most people---is that enough?"
"You're terrible," Lilitu said.
"I suppose," Sayida replied. "But I don't think I can change, and I don't want to, either. Do you think you're better than me? That way, I mean? You're certainly smarter than me, and you write wonderful poems, but most people would think you're pretty terrible yourself."
"I never did anything behind your back," Lilitu said.
"And I appreciated it. It was sweet. But really, you should have. After all, it's not as if you loved me. You don't, do you? I'm too stupid for you."
True enough, Lilitu thought.
"You don't care about leaving me," Sayida went on. "I'm a bit surprised you even came to say goodbye."
"I'm going to miss you," Lilitu said.
"And I'm going to miss you," Sayida said. "So why don't we kiss, and part friends?"
"And let you go back to fucking the Lark?" Lilitu asked.
"Don't be like that," Sayida said.
Lilitu squinted disgustedly at her, pecked her on the cheek, took up her dowry again, and went out of the nest, closing the door behind her, her mood very much flattened. Given the things she'd known all along about Sayida, she wasn't sure why she should be so put out now; but she couldn't deny that the sight of the Lark with her mother's earrings on had been rather a blow to the stomach.
At least go back in and get them, she told herself.
All at once the door opened. "Do you want the ear-rings?" Sayida called from inside.
"Yes," Lilitu answered.
Presently Sayida handed them out.
"Thank you," Lilitu said.
"Really, I think I do love you," Sayida said. "It's just not worth much of anything."
Lilitu just nodded.
Find Nadjibullah, she thought.
For lack of a better plan, she went to the guardhouse again, guessing he might've returned in the meantime.
"Yes, he's inside," said one of the men at the door.
Lilitu went in. Immediately she thought she detected a faint odor of burnt hair.
"Has Lady Shiraz been here?" she asked a soldier.
Before the man could answer, Nadjibullah, looking taller and more broad-shouldered than ever, wearing a helmet and scale-mailshirt, a sword at his side, stepped out of a doorway on the left, a large bag under one arm and another over his back. Right at the moment, his long grey hair and close-cropped salt-and-pepper beard, which had always made him seem so ancient, gave him an air of experience...Lilitu found it rather reassuring. If she'd been older, she might even have thought he was on the handsome side, in a leathery rugged way. Certainly he knew how to kick someone in the teeth.
"There you are," he said, in a deep agreeable voice.
"Has she been here?" Lilitu asked.
"The Lady of the House? A little while ago. Told me I'd better not follow My Lord's orders regarding you. Whereupon I informed her that she had no say in the matter. I understand you set fire to her head."
"Have you packed?"
"Better see to it then, hey?"
After asking him to requisition a chest for her books, she went back to her room. Once everything was packed, a servant helped them bring the baggage to the stable, where it was loaded on a mule. Then Lilitu and Nadjibullah departed the house of Hamid Ben-Babd, each mounted on a good horse and leading another, riding through the fig-groves towards the great field where the caravans stopped.
"One came in yesterday," Nadjibullah said. "They're getting their water and provisions now. I'll speak to the caravan master, show him the letter from your father--- we'll get a good night's sleep, leave before sunup. Then it's three or four days to Al-Baradh, and wedded bliss for you." He looked at Lilitu. "Why the long face?"
She'd been thinking about Sayida, and no matter how she told herself that she shouldn't feel so hurt, she couldn't help herself.
Nadjibullah asked: "Have you begun to suspect that wedded bliss isn't all it's cracked up to be?"
"It's not that," Lilitu said.
Although it could be, she thought.
"Don't tell me you're sad to be leaving," he said.
"I don't want to talk about it," she answered.
"Is there someone back there you're actually going to miss?"
"I told you---"
"You don't want to talk about it. Well, whatever it is---why don't we talk about something else?"
"Maybe it is everything," she said.
"Everything?" He laughed. "Hard to steer clear of that."
"So be quiet," she replied.
They rode on a while in silence.
"Have you learned anything?" he asked at last.
He flung a hand over one shoulder, as though he were tossing something away.
"All that. Life in the house of Babd."
"That no one can be trusted."
"A hard but incontestable truth," Nadjibullah declared.
"I only know one person with a really good heart," she said, "and he's very weak. You can't rely on him."
"This wouldn't be your father, would it?"
"He's not my father."
"You don't say," Nadjibullah answered. "Your mother's wife, then."
"Wife," Nadjibullah laughed.
Nadjibullah said, "A good heart does make you weak, no two ways about it. Clouds your judgement, too. Makes you trust people---"
"When no one can be trusted."
Nadjibullah looked at her slyly. "Of course, that means you're untrustworthy too."
"I don't think I'm worse than anyone else."
"But you do bad things?"
"Not as bad as some."
"Thinking of your stepmother?"
Actually, Lilitu had been thinking of Sayida, but nodded anyway.
"She's a witch, all right," Nadjibullah said. "Going to fry your mother's wife in his own fat, absolutely."
"God save him," Lilitu said.
Nadjibullah spat. "As if God cares."
Lilitu just looked at him.
"Do you believe in God?" he asked.
"I suppose," she answered.
"You just don't quite believe you believe?"
"Well, He's not going to help the exquisitely wretched Hamid Ben-Babd, Son, Grandson, and Great-grandson of Misery. If He has any attitude towards him at all, it's hatred. And if He had any objection to Shiraz, He wouldn't have made her to begin with. You've got to open those pretty grey eyes of yours. See things as they are."
"You're quite the philosopher," she said.
"I will say my eyes are wide open." He smiled at her---to her amazement, she was actually beginning to find him rather attractive, even if she wasn't old enough to.
They reached the campground. There were scores of tents and hundreds of packanimals, horses, donkeys and camels; a few of the merchants were still in the process of buying provisions from Hamid's tenants, who had brought figs, bread, cheese, and goats to sell. Near one big tent, Lilitu noted a large number of guards, armored much the same way as Nadjibullah.
"Lot of soldiers," she said. She'd never seen so many with a caravan.
"Toghril," Nadjibullah said.
That was indeed sufficient explanation; the bandit chief's infamy had grown steadily through the years. Supposedly, his gang now numbered in the hundreds, composed of Kadjafim as well as Naimans.
"Have you heard anything?" Lilitu asked.
''He hit an oasis about ten days east of here.''
"Do you think he's really as horrible as they say?"
"Absolutely. When I knew him---"
"You what?'' she asked, amazed.
"Back when I was in the Khan's army. Toghril was a cavalry commander. A more frightful son of a bitch I never met. And this was before he became a bandit. I saw him in battle more than once---if there's anyone anywhere who could stand up to him, it would be a miracle. He had this big double-bladed axe---it went everyplace at once. And when it came to just plain murder...brrr. One day we were trying to catch up with him, went through this village. I've seen some terrible things, but I never saw anything remotely like that. It was way too much, even for those Urguz generals, and they're not squeamish. I'm no saint, but Toghril's in a class by himself...Crazy, crazy man. " Nadjibullah shook his head. "You should see how he looks."
"I understand he's very ugly."
"He's so scarred and bent he doesn't look like he should be able to move at all, but he's fast as a cobra and unbelievably agile...short fellow, but much stronger than most big men. Arms like an ape. And his face---very disturbing."
"Why's that?" Lilitu asked.
"He was a Naiman prince...''
''Naiman princes are all ugly?''
''Just listen. When the nomads have to kill one of their nobles, they're not allowed to spill their blood, so they wrap them up in a blanket or rug, and then ride the whole tribe over them..."
"I bet there's quite a bit of blood," Lilitu said.
"I bet so too," Nadjibullah said. "But that's what they do, and why. Anyway, our boy killed somebody more important than he was---can't imagine how they caught him, but he was sentenced to death, and wrapped in a carpet. But they were only partway done with riding over him when a bunch of Mirkuts or Keraits or whatever came charging up, and the Naimans had to leave off making him into a paste. Everyone forgot all about him, and damned if he didn't recover. Looks like he took enough pounding to kill twenty men, but...''
"Did you ever get used to his appearance?"
"Believe me, my dear," he said. "There are some things you never get used to. Wait here. I'm going to see if I can't find the caravan master."
He came back towards sundown with some firewood, and a goat's haunch which he thrust into Lilitu's hands. She made a face.
"Sorry to get you messy," he said, "but it would be better if we kept the meat out of the dirt, yes?'' He untied a bundle that had metal things clinking inside, took out two uprights and a long flat skewer with a wooden handle at one end, jabbed the uprights in the ground, and set the skewer in the forks on top of them. Then he got some brush and laid that down for kindling, and added a bit of fluffy tinder, which he struck a spark into with iron and flint; the tinder caught, and the kindling went right up, and he started a chunk of wood, which was dry and splintery, went right up too, and was followed by several more chunks. All the while, Lilitu had been sitting there holding that bloody haunch, but now he took it back, skinned it with a knife, ran the skewer through, and set the spit back in the forks. Soon the meat was sizzling and dripping, a delicious smell filling the air. After a time he turned the haunch over, and sprinkled it with something that he'd taken from a little leather sack.
By then, the sky was darkening. Lilitu looked round at all the other campfires, and the silhouettes gathered round or passing in front of them. It was really quite a scene, the flames and everything they lit orange-red, the long shadows of the figures stark black, the sunset's pale yellow deepening to green, then blue. She began to feel better about everything---yes, her life had gotten very unhappy, but she was leaving all that behind.
Nadjibullah washed his hands with a bit of water from a leather bottle, then said:
"I've got a little tent. Shall I set it up, or do you want to sleep under the stars?"
She looked up at the sky. A few of the brightest ones were already visible. "Under the stars."
"What do we do about vermin, though?" she asked.
"Haven't you ever slept outside?"
He shrugged. "You just have to take your chances. But it's not that dangerous. The scorpions you have to worry about are the big black kind, and they're not very common, and they stay away from people. The sort that like to cuddle up are the little brown ones. They'll sting you, but no worse than a bee."
Lilitu studied him. "You know about scorpions, and snakes and things?"
He smiled. "What of it?"
"Oh nothing. Want to hear something funny?"
"Always in the mood for that."
She said: "Someone put a bunch of those little brown ones in my room."
He looked appalled. "Why would someone do such a thing?"
"I think they were trying to kill me. For Shiraz."
He mulled this over, then said: "There's another possibility."
"They might have been trying to keep you alive. If they knew about scorpions, but Shiraz didn't, say, because she was so scared she never learned...'' He smiled again, then inhaled through his nostrils. "Doesn't that meat smell good?"
The caravan departed well before sunup, and even as the sky started to redden, had already crossed the dunes east of the oasis; beyond lay a vast stretch of gravelly plain dotted with brush. When the yellow disc of the sun lifted into view, just off to the right, it rose over an utterly flat horizon, limning the tops of the low brushes.
"I can't see Al-Baradh," Lilitu said.
"Why would you expect to?" Nadjibullah asked.
"Aren't there two enormous stone columns?"
"Yes, but they're down below a rim...the ground falls away. We won't spot anything till the last day. They're both the same height, but one's much thicker than the other. The original fort sits on top of the thin one---very impressive. Many towers...the first thing we'll see is the tops of those, poking up. But the new fort is rather a measly little bore. That's where you'll be living.''
"Why was the first fort abandoned?"
"There was a bridge between the columns...you could only reach the second from the first. But the middle of the bridge collapsed about a hundred years ago, and no one could afford to rebuild it, so they just built a new, smaller fortress on the first column."
They rode on, Lilitu squinting eastward, using her hand to shade her eyes from the sun. At length she lowered her gaze. Low as they were, the bushes cast long violet shadows in the early morning light. Little things were chasing about on the ground. Lilitu guessed they were mice or lizards, or just possibly---
She turned toward Nadjibullah. "You put them in my room, didn't you?" she asked.
"The scorpions. And the snakes."
He laughed. "Didn't I say as much? Over dinner?"
Lilitu asked: "Why didn't you do what she told you?"
"Your lovely stepmother?"
"Why didn't you use really dangerous ones?"
"Because she thinks they're all really dangerous. Weren't you listening last night? She thought any would do. I just followed my orders."
"But why did you spare me?"
He looked amused. "Guess."
"Because, my dear," he said, "you're quite a wonderful little piece."
"Oh," she said, feeling her cheeks growing hot. "Is that it?"
"Yes, that's it. Nothing more to it than that. If you were ugly you'd be dead and ugly now. But I took a shine to you a couple of years ago, when you stopped looking like a little girl. You might not have noticed me, but I certainly noticed you."
"Ugh," Lilitu said. "And how old are you? A hundred and fifty?"
He took the barb completely in stride. "This particular hundred and fifty year old has certain advantages over callow youths, my dear."
"To start with, I'm in better shape than most of them. And I really know what I'm doing. I've had a lot of experience.''
"Eee--yeww," Lilitu said.
"Don't give me that," he answered. "You've decided I'm not so bad. I can tell."
"No you can't," she said. "Because I haven't."
"All right. I'm pretty unappetizing. Whatever you say. But you are deep in my debt. And you should know that Shiraz hasn't given up on her money---or killing you. Came to see me while her head was still smoking, told me to cut your throat to the spine, bury you in the sand, and bring the dowry back...''
''How much did she pay you?''
''Does it matter?''
''Are you threatening me or not?''
''I'm merely trying to point out your extreme good fortune in catching the fancy of this doddering old ruin." He tapped himself on his scale-mailed chest.
"All right,'' she said. ''I count myself fortunate.''
"And well you should! Smile! I'm not going to hurt you, no matter what. I don't hurt wonderful pieces, as I said. Especially when they have such amazing white skin and such striking grey almond eyes. But I think it would be entirely in order for you to show me some gratitude for the next couple of nights, until we're just about to Al- Baradh, and I head for Thangura with Shiraz's money."
"I'm betrothed," Lilitu said.
"Think about it anyway," said Nadjibullah.
The morning wore on. Once the sun got high in the sky, the caravan halted, and didn't start moving again till the heat broke in the mid-afternoon. There was a rain-shower after that, which cleared quickly---this time of year, there was always rain in the afternoon. Lilitu was glad of that, because it kept the dust down---she and Nadjibullah were far back in the column.
Several hundred yards to the right and left rode troops of soldiers, fifteen men apiece; there was another squad out in front, and a fourth bringing up the rear. She continued to be startled by the way that the flankers would simply vanish from time to time---she'd look away, and they'd be gone, only to reappear a short while later, coming up out of some shallow declivity that was just enough to conceal them. Now that the dust had been damped down, and they weren't even raising those rusty clouds, the whole thing seemed even more eerie.
"Country looks flat, but it's not," Nadjibullah explained. "Men who know what they're doing can come right up on you, particularly after it's rained. Now you take our boys to the left here---"
Lilitu looked. The flankers were even then in the process of slipping from view.
"Those idiots should stick to the ridges," Nadjibullah said. "Pay close attention to what they're looking at, pick out the high ground, and stay on it. Wouldn't be as easy to sneak up on them. I should talk to their damn commander---"
He broke off, staring away to the left.
"What is it?" Lilitu asked, then looked the same way. At first she thought the flankers had come back up into view; then she realized that these riders were much too distant. And numerous.
"Shit," said Nadjibullah. "Those are Naimans."
How can he tell? Lilitu thought. After a few second the flankers came back up into view, obscuring the riders beyond them; if the troops had seen the Naimans, they gave no sign of it. But others in the main column besides Lilitu and Nadjibullah had glimpsed the marauders and horns sounded, and the caravan halted. The flankers came galloping over to the column, the other troops and the caravan master soon joining them.
"I think I'd better go volunteer my expertise," Nadjibullah said.
Lilitu waited tensely, scanning the surrounding landscape, fully expecting the invisible slight declivities on every side to suddenly boil over with vast numbers of charging, screaming, scimitar-waving riders. But as time wore on, it began to seem as if no one had caught a second glimpse of the Naimans--- at least, the men who Nadjibullah had gone to lecture seemed to grow increasingly casual in their attitude. The four troops split up once more; Nadjibullah returned, shaking his head.
"Ah, what do I know?" he asked.
"Are the Naimans still out there?" Lilitu asked.
"Somewhere...weren't enough of 'em to take us for the time being, but they're probably sending for sending for reinforcements."
"Why don't we head back for Sawaliyeh?" Lilitu didn't much like the idea, but Toghril sounded even worse than Shiraz...
"I suggested that. Strongly.''
Guessing he planned to abscond before he got there, she asked: ''But the master said---what?''
''He'd have none of it. Said he's a week behind already, and that some fellow up the line is going to have his hide as it is, and that he's paying those guards good money, and---''
''Why don't we head back on our own?"
"Because, my dear, if those Naimans are still lurking about, they'll catch us before we've gone a mile. Have you come to a decision, by the way?"
"Regarding that show of gratitude. Things may get rough, and you might never get another chance to be fucked by my leathery old self---"
Lilitu gave a shocked laugh.
"---or anyone else, for that matter---"
Just then a horn brayed, and the column started forward again.
That night, he didn't ask if she wanted to sleep under the stars, just put the tent up. Then he sat down next to her by the fire.
"I'm betrothed," she said.
"You'll simply be getting some practice."
"I should practice being faithful."
"Nonsense. A wife needs to satisfy, above all else. You should, therefore, be properly seasoned. And I'm just the cook to do it. You're not a virgin anyway."
"Akbar doesn't know that," she lied.
"What difference does that make?"
She wasn't sure.
He said: "It's not as though your maidenhead will knit back up if we don't do it."
"I want to change," she replied.
"Still won't get it back."
"I like Akbar...''
"A moving profession."
"I don't want to be bad anymore...''
"But you know you will."
"What did you tell me?'' he asked. ''That you'd be lying if you said you were trustworthy?"
"Gave me all that money. I'm supposed to marry Akbar---"
"Marriage is a human institution," Nadjibullah jeered.
"You make a vow---"
"You haven't yet. And even when you do, it's just breath passing through your lips. Same as when you belch."
"It's not like that at all---"
"You should just enjoy yourself, whenever you can. You've been doing that anyway."
She asked: "How do you know so much about me?"
"Do you know anyone we both might have fucked?"
Lilitu closed her eyes. "Sayida."
"Say--ida," Nadjibullah said. "Mind you, she never said an unkind word about you. Some might've thought she was being unkind, but she wasn't. She thought you were just wonderful. Brought you up constantly, especially when we were in the process, as it were...''
"Who else were you doing?" Lilitu asked.
"Not the master of the house. Or the animals, you'll be happy to hear. Not sure if I can say that about Sayida...wouldn't be surprised if she give birth to twin goats one day...''
"What about Shiraz?"
"Twice a week. She talked about you too. Although I don't think she had any real idea of what to do with you."
Lilitu bent over, head in her hands.
"Didn't mean to depress you," he said. "But Sawaliyeh is a little patch of Khymir come south."
"Evidently," Lilitu said.
"I've been up there, you know," Nadjibullah said. "Went with my brother Atef about fifteen years ago. Coming back was a big mistake. Atef's done very well, opened a brothel. I spent some remarkable evenings there. Told Sayida all about them."
"I think she passed some of it on to me."
He nodded. "Bedtime stories, eh?"
"Did you like them?"
"Yes," Lilitu admitted.
"I'm a better storyteller than Sayida," Nadjibullah said.
She could easily believe it---that voice of his could certainly be employed to great effect. But even though he was making inroads, she still wasn't ready, and part of her hoped she never would be. She moved away from him.
"You're too old for me, and I'm supposed to marry Akbar."
"Whatever," he said.
There was no sign of the bandits the next day; Nadjibullah noted the fact that the caravan hadn't passed any packtrains coming east.
"Might be why we haven't seen any more Naimans," he said. "They hit a caravan farther along..."
Guessing he saw a chance to take off, anxious to delay the seizing of her dowry as long as possible, Lilitu said: "You don't know that they're gone."
"That's true," he replied.
When they made camp, he set up the tent again and started in on her once more.
"I've been thinking,'' he said. "When I bolt, you should come away with me. If I take your dowry, your marriage is off. There won't be anything for you at Al-Baradh. But between your dowry and the silver Shiraz gave me, we'll have lots of money. We could go to Thangura, book a ship for Khymir, and still have plenty left over. My brother would be delighted to see me, and we could invest in his business. A brothel in Khymir can turn an astounding profit...''
"And I'll be...what?" Lilitu asked. "One of your brother's whores?"
"With your looks, you'd do very well," he said.
"You mean, your brother would do very well."
"That's not what I meant at all---"
"I'm telling you right now,'' she said, "I don't like this line of argument."
"Just thought I'd try," he answered. "Nothing else seems to make an impression, and we're running out of time. This caravan is going to reach Al-Baradh tomorrow, or the morning after...''
"I don't want to go to Khymir and become a whore."
"Just a suggestion."
He fell silent after that, and drank a good deal of wine; then he went into the tent. Lilitu stretched herself out beside the fire, under her blanket, and had either been asleep or just on the verge of it when he cried:
"Look! Ever see a snake like this?''
His hand was sticking out through the tent-flap, a long serpent dangling from it. She went closer. It was either a brown or black jerboa snake---it was hard to tell in the firelight. Either way, it was common.
"You know perfectly well what kind it is," she said.
He tossed it away, said: "Oh well, I've got another," and snatched her skirt up by the hip, pulling her into the tent and down on top of him.
"You owe me," he said.
Indeed, that had always struck her as his best argument.
She still didn't feel much like co-operating at first, and considered crying rape, but once his hands were moving all over her, enormously strong and extremely skillful at the same time, she began to feel a distinct apathy about her rights. He was nothing at all like Akbar or Oded, or even Sayida for that matter, although she had never, frankly, imagined that his technique would be very like hers. He was very direct and forceful without being rough, the impression reinforced by the extreme hardness of his muscles, which was apparent even through his clothes. There hadn't been an ounce of fat on Oded or Akbar---Akbar had been quite skinny, in fact---but Nadjibullah made them seem doughy. He knew how to kiss, and his fingers seemed more clever by the moment---by the time he had her clothes off, she was beyond caring about any of the things that had once disturbed her about him. They went at it well into the night, stopped for some food, then started again; he was indefatigable, and quite an excellent storyteller too, just as he'd said. She suspected some of the most amazing bits must be mere invention, but what splendid inventions they were, informed by his uncanny knack for settling on the sort of details that would move her, and he exhausted her so thoroughly that---
She didn't even have a memory of drifting off.
Blue sky showed through the tent flap; she heard voices outside, all sorts of other sounds as well, birdsong, feet crunching on gravel, brush rustling, camel croaks, harness-bells chiming. Nadjibullah was pulling his trousers on. He prodded her leg.
"That hasn't happened for a while," he said.
"Someone wearing me out so much that I don't even remember falling asleep---Say---did you leave your dowry out there?"
She jumped up, almost ran out to get it, then realized she was naked.
"I'll go," he said.
Donning a shirt, he went out, then returned with the sacks.
"Don't you feel silly?" he asked, and put his boots on.
"Almost sunup," he said. "We should've cleared out a while ago. Something's wrong."
"Ask," Lilitu said.
He went and came back.
"Caravan-master's taken ill," he explained.
Lilitu had some flatbread, watching him climb into his scale-mail and fasten his sword-belt.
''Let's take the tent down," he said.
"I'm naked," she said.
"Dress," he replied.
She did so, helped with the tent, then helped pack everything onto the mule.
"What's the rush?" she asked.
"We're leaving," he said.
She looked round at the others. "Doesn't look like it."
"You and I.''
"Enjoy yourself last night?"
"You know I did. But I'm---"
"Supposed to marry Akbar," he said. "Let's put it this way. I'm leaving, with your dowry, whether you come or not."
"You wouldn't dare," she said.
"Who's to stop me?"
"They're not even awake yet. And I could lose myself in this country like that---" He snapped his fingers.
''What about the Naimans?''
''Have to chance it.''
She pleaded: "Don't take my dowry."
"Come with me," he answered, and went over to her horse.
"You have no right---"
Opening one of the saddlebags, he took out the gold-sacks. "No one has rights.You should come with me."
"How does that follow---"
"I won't argue with you anymore," he said, slinging the sacks over his shoulder, coming back to her. "But my offer still stands.''
"To let me accompany my own money?" she cried.
Nearby, people stopped what they were doing, looked up. Nadjibullah circled partway round Lilitu, saying:
"It was never yours.''
''Akbar's father will hunt you down.''
''Have to chance it.''
''Is that your answer for everything?''
''Keep your voice down.''
Complying, even though she didn't know why, she answered: "I think you're truly something, and I don't want anyone hunting you down. But you'd better not take my dowry."
A camel-driver drew near, asking: "Is there some problem, young lady?"
Lilitu didn't answer, eyeing Nadjibullah desperately.
"What's it going to be?" she asked.
He whispered, "I think I could kill that oaf in a heartbeat." His hand wandered to his hilt. "Shall I?"
She didn't doubt he could and would do it...badly rattled, she said: ''My father---''
''Is farther away than Akbar's, and even less likely to catch us.''
"Neither me, nor you. You have nothing to worry about. If you're smart, you don't get caught."
"I've been caught---"
"You weren't with me. I've been stealing, killing, fucking other men's wives and daughters for years and years. Do you think there's justice in the world? That God cares? There's no lightning-bolt aimed at me---"
This assertion was cut short by a loud thump, and something lunged out of his chest, flipping one of his mail-scales up---feeling a sting between the breasts, Lilitu jumped back, squinting. Two and a half feet of arrow-shaft had emerged from his ribcage---the point had nicked her. He coughed and looked down, then back up at her, his face going very pale. He tottered.
Another arrow whirred down, thudding into the back of his head at a slant, the point bursting out through his left eyesocket, knocking his eyeball down onto his cheek. Running with blood, the shaft came out farther than the first one before its force was spent; instead of jerking to a sudden halt, it slowed visibly, and sagged; the only thing holding it in his eyesocket were the remains of the fletching. The shaft sagged further, and Lilitu heard a soft bristly rasping sound as the feathers slipped free of his eyelids. Pushing the eyeball to one side, the arrow fell, rattling over the scale-mail on his chest, dropping past the shaft protruding there.
Blood boiling from his eyesocket, he reached in Lilitu's direction, but she doubted he was even aware of her; he coughed again, shuddering. She stepped up, snatched the gold-sacks away from him, and stepped back again before he fell.
A hundred yards behind him, blazing orange in the first rays of the sun, standing out vividly against the deep blue of the western sky, a lone horseman was revealed atop a low ridge. Almost immediately, two more appeared, on either side of him; then, very much as Lilitu had imagined it (except for the fact that the light was more dramatic than she'd envisioned, and she saw more bows than scimitars) whatever slight declivity there was behind the ridge suddenly boiled over with charging, screaming bandits.
She heard things rushing through the air. The camel-driver screamed...he was looking down at his leg. Fletching was sticking out beside his shin; an arrow-shaft slanted from his calf, down into the dirt.
Red spray burst from his back; an arrow struck the dirt a few yards behind him. He grabbed himself in front and behind, turned partway towards Lilitu, then reached down, tried to pull the arrow out of his leg by the fletching, then out of his calf by the shaft; he didn't seem to be thinking too straight. A third arrow caught him in the jaw and pinned that to his shoulder. He simply seemed to give up after that, lying right down.
Lilitu looked back at the bandits.
Like a wave, they were still washing over the top of that ridge, the ones in front vanishing for a few seconds behind a line of brush as they raced down into the valley-bottom between the two slopes. Then they tore back up into view, ripping through the scrub, sending branches and leaves flying, stones and dust exploding under the hooves of their horses.
All throughout the camp, voices were screaming; somewhere a trumpet began to blow, then fell suddenly silent. Horses neighed and camels croaked. A man raced past Lilitu dragging a long string of sausages in the dirt. Another went by in the other direction with his pants around his ankles, reaching to pull them up, looking like he was just about to fall over but never quite doing it. A third stumbled by with one arm propped out from his side by an arrowhead that had punched out through his ribcage; he flopped down on his face, whereupon a dog dashed up between his legs and onto his back, only to be whirled off him by an arrow through the head. Lilitu wondered if anyone had actually been aiming at the dog, wondered why she was bothering to wonder, and raced towards her mount.
The horse and the one strung to it were both terrified, and shied and reared as she approached; she managed to grab a rein and yank on it, and her steed co-operated long enough for her to climb into the saddle. Then, even as the first bandits were thundering into the camp, she wheeled her horse round and galloped off in the opposite direction.
As she passed between two tents, a woman darted out in front of her, was bashed to the ground by Lilitu's horse, the animal stopping dead after it struck her, the one behind slamming into it. Hearing a hideous squeal, Lilitu looked back to see the second horse collapsing with an arrow in its back. Drawing a knife, Lilitu sliced the line connecting the two beasts, reined round the woman on the ground, and goaded her horse back to a gallop.
A camel stumbled by in front, a man stumbling along beside it, tugging on its bridle, as though he entertained some hope of yanking the beast to a halt and mounting it; both plowed into the side of a large red tent, which deflated over them, air puffing its flap out as it collapsed, two chickens sailing through on the gust, trailing feathers.
Lilitu noticed motion to her right; a bandit hammered up beside her, his eyes dark slits, his face red with dust, his head shaved except for a tuft of black hair in front bisected by a shaved stripe. He was wearing baggy blue-silk trousers but no shirt, and on his arms were two leather sleeves, bound together by thongs across his tattooed chest and back and partially covered with stapled-on chain mail and small metal plates. He carried a short glossy brown double-recurved bow, and his arrows were in a boot on his saddle; switching his bow to his left hand, he leaned over reached out with his right, snatched Lilitu's reins---
And let them go again as a man rushed up in front of him and crouched, setting the butt of a long spear in the ground, the point missing the Naiman's horse's neck and driving into the bandit's chest, flinging him backwards from the saddle, the horse going right over the spearman.
Directly in front of Lilitu, a tent burst into flames with a whoom! Enveloped in fire, a figure lunged out of the conflagration, cradling something in its arms. Lilitu's horse balked, began to back up. A Naiman came riding round the tent, waving a burning brand. Catching sight of her, he dropped it and spurred towards her, but a flock of sheep--Lilitu was reminded of termites--surged into his path, and his horse shied and reared. While she was trying to get hers going again, she found herself, for several terrible moments, eyeing the bandit across the boiling wool. He jumped down from his mount, and she thought he was going to come wading right through, but he drew his sword and started hacking at the sheep, following along behind the flock, chopping and laughing.
Lilitu's mount decided to start moving again, away to the right, where a bandit was walking casually towards her eating an apple; there was a horse behind him, lying motionless on its side with its legs sticking straight out, a forelimb chopped partway through above the fetlock, hoof hanging. Holding his apple in his mouth, he waved at Lilitu with both hands as though he expected her to stop; when she sped up, she caught the Naiman word for bitch, and he hurled the apple at her---it shattered smartingly against her ear, covering the side of her face with juice.
Avoiding two more dismounted bandits, Kadjafim, who were carring on an animated conversation while dragging a woman by her braids, she saw a rider surrounded by a ring of Kadjafi soldiers, all of them prostrate and wringing their hands, begging for their lives. The bandit, who was wearing a helmet with a very tall red nodding plume, looked as though he might have been all of fourteen and seemed to be enjoying himself royally; he was grinning broadly, with big buck teeth.
She continued south.
Once she got out of the camp, she couldn't see anyone ahead of her; a glance back showed her that no one was following, at least for the moment. If she could just descend into one of those hollows, she was sure she could lose herself---she had water and food, and Sawaliyeh was only two days' ride…
A gust of wind struck her, and grit got into her eyes; she winced, rubbed them with thumb and forefinger, opened them again. They still felt scratchy, and she was about to rub them again when she realized that a group of riders had drawn themselves up directly in front of her.
With a curse, she reined away to the right. She heard whoops in back of her, glanced over her shoulder to see several bandits pursuing her; the rest made for the camp, others flooding up behind them.
She galloped west, jabbing her heels into her horse. An arrow whirred past her; in spite of the fact that it had come so close, she was certain it must have been a warning shot. She considered stopping, decided to press ahead.
Her mount screamed, slowed; she reached back, felt an arrow embedded in the animal's haunch, was much less sure that this one had been a warning. Again she thought of giving up, but without actually dismissing the idea, continued forward, trying to goad her horse back to a full gallop.
A tonsured rider swept up alongside her, wearing a suit of brown-lacquered lamellar armor that had seen much better days. He aimed his bow at Lilitu's face; as she flinched, he grinned and shifted his aim, apparently preparing to finish her horse.
Just then his stepped into a chuckhole.
Even over the pounding of the hooves, Lilitu heard the snap of its foreleg; the Naiman's horse went down on its chin, upended, and came down on top of him as it broke its neck.
Lilitu barked a laugh.
An instant later her horse, having had quite enough of her goading, especially when it had taken an arrow in the behind in her service, simply stopped, and she flew from the saddle, sliding up along its neck, her legs on either side of it; passing over its ears, she slanted down, her stomach barely touching the top of the horse's head, then sailed to the ground.
As she was getting up, spitting dirt and clutching a bloodied forearm, her two remaining pursuers rode round in front of her from either side, chuckling, both of them wearing iron-studded silk armor embroidered with coiling red dragons.
She looked round towards the camp. It seemed to have been completely overrun; many of the tents were burning. Riders milled about, some discharging bows downward, others leaning from their saddles, swinging sabers or axes, or jabbing with spears. Having fled the camp, scores of horses and camels were wandering about in the brush.
She looked back at the men who'd caught her. One dismounted and came forward. The sacks had fallen from her shoulder; he picked them up, opened one, whistled, then drew it back shut.
"Lot of gold," he said. All the steppe tribes spoke pretty much the same language; Lilitu had learned the basics from her mother, and had picked up the rest over the years.
He studied Lilitu's face. "What are you?" he asked. "Naiman? Mirkut?"
"Naiman," she said.
"And what were you doing in that caravan?" he asked.
"I'm a slave. I belong to a dye-merchant---"
"No," he replied. "Lord Toghril now."
"But I'm a Naiman, just like you---"
"Who knows what the Hell you are, sister?" he asked, and went to take a look at the arrow in her mount. "Your animal's lucky. I only drew part-way." He stroked the horse's thigh. "Yes, you're lucky, boy. We can fix you up, I think."
"Let's go," the other Naiman called.
"Right," said the first, and leered at Lilitu. "The boss is going to want to meet you."
He bound her hands and strung her behind her horse with a pleated leather rope, while the other Naiman strung the wounded beast; they went back up into the camp.
All the bandits there had dismounted; some were searching tents and opening bales and barrels and jars, while others were binding captives' wrists. There were corpses everywhere, hacked, opened, sprawled grotesquely in pools of blood. Lilitu had only seen a few dead people in her life, and none who'd met a violent end; she could barely keep herself from retching. She wanted to close her eyes, but the Naiman that was towing her seemed perfectly happy to ride straight over anything, no matter how grisly it was, and she had to look just to keep herself from tripping.
In spite of the images assaulting her, she found herself thinking fairly clearly, rather to her surprise...she noticed the victims were all old women, young children, or grown men, in short, unsalable merchandise.
Along with other prisoners, she was yanked about the camp for a time, her captors showing her off, joking with comrades, admiring each other's loot. Bottles went round; an old fellow took charge of her wounded horse.
Then orders passed; things began to get organized. Booty and prisoners were gathered together; standing towards the edge of the mass of captives, Lilitu saw Toghril for the first time.
Given what Nadjibullah had said, she recognized the chieftain immediately ; a squat, gnarled, twisted brute with very long arms, he'd just come out of a tent, and was pulling his trousers up--- she guessed he'd been sampling one of the prisoners. He was barechested, and even at a distance, she could see that his skin was lumpy and mottled; as for his face, it was hard to make much sense of it. It was located between his hair and his neck, but his eyes weren't readily visible, and she wasn't quite able to discern his nose---the only feature she could clearly detect was his mouth. Everything else seemed jumbled.
"Where's Koghar?" he shouted in a harsh, consummately brutal voice, painful to the ears.
One of his men ran up and whispered to him. Toghril pushed him away, advancing on the prisoners with a weird, quick, swinging limp, as though his injuries had imparted an instability that had, somehow, enhanced his mobility; it was quite nightmarish. As he came closer, Lilitu kept trying to get a clear impression of his face, but couldn't---it simply failed to resolve itself into something coherent.
Another of his underlings rushed up with a pair of severed heads, holding them by the hair.
"My Lord," he said.
Toghril hefted one and nodded appreciatively, like one who hefted heads with some frequency.
"This one's even heavier," his underling said, and presented the second. Toghril stood comparing them. At length he gave one back to his man and pointed to the other, declaring, to the manifest delight of the bandits standing nearby:
"This is one heavy head!"
Just then a thin man in a chain-mail shirt appeared on the scene.
"Koghar!" Toghril cried.
"My Lord!" the thin man said.
Toghril swung the head back and forth, saying: "I have a question.''
Koghar watched the ghastly pendulum, his face going back and forth. "Yes, My Lord?"
"Where were you?"
Koghar looked up. "Just now?"
"When we attacked."
''There were chuckholes...burrows. Thousands of 'em, so we went round.''
''You went round?''
''It was like the ground-squirrels had a city...''
''Ah, you just go straight on through. That's if you've got any stones at all. So what if a couple of fellows break their necks...everyone dies of something. You should be ashamed of yourself.''
''Apologize to your ancestors.''
Koghar looked at the sky. “I am so sorry.''
Toghril proffered the head. "Do you think you're as sorry as this fellow?"
"Take it," Toghril said.
Koghar accepted it.
"Ever feel such a heavy damn head?" Togril asked.
"No, My Lord," Koghar said.
"Neither have I," Toghril said, and motioned for him to give it back.
Koghar returned it.
"You know though," Toghril said, "I 'd wager I can make it even heavier."
Koghar seemed puzzled.
"Feel heavier, at any rate," Toghril said.
Toghril nodded. "To you---"
Swinging the head round, he smashed Koghar in the face with it. Blood and teeth tumbling from his mouth, Koghar toppled backwards, his men jumping to get away from him. Like a hideous ape, Toghril capered up alongside him, swung the head down again, leaped back, then in once more. Lilitu looked away, but heard blow after blow. Thumps became crunches, the crunches grew mushy, then turned into wet smacks, like laundry being slapped against a rock; when at last the sounds stopped and Lilitu looked once more, Toghril and Koghar were both covered in blood, the severed head was a hanging red ragged mass, and Koghar's was completely pulped.
"There now," Toghril said, dropped the dripping thing he held, then turned and started towards the prisoners again. It was, if anything, harder now for Lilitu to discern his features, with all the blood spattered over him; he had to come very near before she could distinguish everything, and then, awestruck, she wondered just how many horses had galloped over him. His face was wide and splayed, the whole center of it flattened, his brow crushed concave; there was a bizarre sideways crest across the top of his head, as though pressure on the front of it had caused it to break in the middle. His eyes seemed to have been pushed back in their sockets, even to the extent of being slightly removed from their lids, and his nose barely protruded at all, defined primarily from beneath by the twin slits of his flattened nostrils; his mouth was huge but lipless, and everywhere his skin was printed with crescent-shaped overlapping indentations.
She blinked, shook her head----
And realized he was staring straight at her. He reached out as if to touched her, then appeared to realize his hand was soaked in gore, and told one of his lieutenants:
"Brush that dust off her face."
The man hastened to comply; when he was done, Toghril cocked his head to one side, the whole attitude of his body softening; the corners of his lips drew upwards in a smile which was pathetically childlike and all the more gruesome for it.
"Mother?" he asked.