"Whass isserr y'er name?" the old merchant regarded Clara with his one good eye. Rashiq glared at her from behind him, and then at the merchant too for good measure.
"My name?" she replied, not quite sure if she had heard him right. The accent was terrible, making him hard to understand.
"Ayb. Yo name." He gave her a slight smile. Years of age left him little to fear in Rashiq. He stood hunched over, leaning on a cane. His desiccated skin gave him the appearance of an animated mummy, and one eye was a grown-over socket. A few wisps of hair protruded from under a turban protecting his head from the sun. What could Rashiq possibly do that age and disease had not already done?
"I'm Clara. I'm terribly lost," she added quickly.
"Kara" he repeated.
"No, 'Clara' " she corrected, pronouncing it slowly for him.
"Kara" he repeated, still dropping most of the 'l'.
She sighed. It was close enough. At least he spoke a little English, if badly. She was standing in the blazing sun, her wrists tied together, with a dozen people dressed in strange robes staring at her. She observed briefly that she was beginning to sunburn. At least they had put away their weapons. She had been sure they were going to kill her, then they had grabbed her instead. There wasn't much she could do, but try to answer their questions, and maybe slip in a few of her own. She was sure that the scary one with the sword was the leader. Unfortunately, he also seemed to be the very least friendly of the bunch.
Rashiq spoke to the old man "Ask her who she's spying for, as if I don't already know." The old man paused a moment, thinking.
"Well? Do it!" Rashiq snapped.
"Oh, be still for once. I've got to think of how to say 'spy' so as she'll understand it" he replied in unhurried Arabic. "I'll just ask who she works for. That'll be close enough." He waved down Rashiq's protest before he could voice it.
"Who are thous imp-loyment?" he croaked out.
It seemed an odd question to Clara. He wanted to know whom she worked for, if she understood him correctly. Then it dawned on her that they might be thinking that she worked for some foreign government. Without much else to go on, she decided honesty might very well be the best policy. "Village Inn. I'm a waitress." She had been working some evenings and most weekends for spending money. Her parents had insisted that if she was going to use the family car, she needed to contribute to the gas budget. A battery of queries followed. Where are you from? Where do you live? Where's that? Why are you here? Her mind darted ahead, as the old man struggled to translate her words back to the leader. She needed to know at least where she was. She leaned forward slightly, trying to catch the old man's eye "Am I in Iran?" Rashiq bellowed something unintelligible at her, his eyes blazing. She decided it was probably "shut up!" She frowned, but fell silent. Rashiq stepped off a short distance, taking his followers with him. Only then did he begin talking to them.
"Not only is she a spy, but she is insolent as well! We are getting no where. She tells us she works at an Inn, somewhere near a Boulder. It is all nonsense! She is a spy of the Duke across the border. She probably knows exactly when he is planning on attacking us."
The old man began to give his opinion. "Rashiq, it's possible, likely even, that I haven't fully understood her words. She doesn't speak like they do in Hanoran, or at least" but Rashiq cut him off before he could finish.
"No! She's a lying spy. She won't even tell us were she really lives. We must find out all she knows about the attack as quickly as we can."
The old merchant cut in quickly, while Rashiq paused for breath "Perhaps we could send for the potter's daughter at our neighbors camp... her name is lost to me. She is said to have a gift for tongues, and speaks the words of Hanoran far better than I" he watched as various heads nodded and muttered assent. Rashiq stood and fumed, but could see that everyone else thought it was a good idea.
"My son could ride there. It would take no more than candle mark and a half. A horse would tire less quickly under his weight, especially if she must ride behind him" Naziim interjected helpfully.
"Very well. But be sure the spy is tied securely, and post a armed guard." Rashiq turned without a further word, and walked off into his tent.
By mid-afternoon, Mohammed rode back into camp, accompanied by a woman on a second horse. Sharil was at least a half a head taller than Mohammed was, all her face except her almond eyes hidden behind a veil. They slid from their saddles, and then she waited for him, as he tied the horses to a rail. He was disappointed that her father had seen fit to let her take another horse. He had been hoping that she would ride with him. Her father would be looking for a suitor soon, and he had begun to hope that he would be considered. He was sent to fetch Rashiq, and soon half the village was gathered at the horse corral.
In the middle of the corral was a ten-foot tall post, with an iron ring at the top. It was used for breaking wild horses, and exercising others on occasion. Clara was sitting on the ground, her arms tied behind her around the post. A young-looking guard stood nearby, leaning on a spear, with a scimitar belted to his waist. He wiped away a drop of sweat from his forehead. Clara was sweating too, but could not affect any such convenience. She let her head droop, miserable in the heat and dust of the corral. She heard footsteps, but didn't bother to look up. She simply assumed that the guard was being changed again.
A soft, female voice spoke, "Thou art from Hanoran?" Clara looked up, squinting into the sun. Before her stood several of the men she had seen earlier, but a new figure was amongst them. She stepped closer, blocking the sun so that Clara could see her better. It was a woman, in loose pants that appeared to be silk, and a close fitting coat. Her head was covered, and a veil of dark blue material covered most of her face, but she was easily recognizable as the only female, regardless. It dawned then on Clara that the women of this village that she had seen so far had not worn veils. The woman's almond eyes locked with Clara's blue ones, "Doest thou not understand me? Are thou from Hanoran?" she said, more slowly this time.
Clara swallowed, her mouth thick with dust, then croaked out in reply "I understand you. I just don't know what Hanoran is."
The woman studied her a moment, then said something in Arabic to the men. The one Clara had identified as the leader replied, in angry tones. The woman - no perhaps she was younger than that - girl spoke quickly "Thou must listen. Rashiq is very angry. He thinks you a spy, sent by Hanoran. Tell me whom you are, why you are here, and where you came from. You must be truthful."
Clara sighed. She was tired, hungry, but especially thirsty. "Can I have a drink of water, first? Please?" She fixed the other girl with her most pitiful look. She thought that the material covering the other's face might have moved in an expression, but she couldn't be sure. But she turned and spoke to the men. Immediately, the one who she believed was called 'Rashiq' said something, waving one hand around. She didn't have to understand his language to know that he was angry. He stepped over to her, then quickly knelt down. Before she could figure out his intentions, they become painfully clear as he slapped her hard across the face. Then he stood, and said something to her questioner, pointing an angry finger at her.
Clara was sure that she saw a bit of fear in the unidentified girl's eyes. "He is very angry. Answer my questions quickly - and truthfully!" Her voice was begging, rather than reproachful.
Clara took a deep breath "My name is Clara O'Connell, I'm from Boulder, Colorado. I don't have any idea why I'm here. If I could go home, I would." She let her head hang down, as she finished speaking.
Sharil listened, then translated the words back to the men. Rashiq grew redder, if that were possible now, as he listened.
"I am tired of these lies that she lives next to a Boulder. Tie her up to the post. If I must whip the truth from her, then by Allah, that is what I shall do!"
Several of the other men made sideways glances. They weren't sure who or what she was, but a spy seemed unlikely. She was poorly equipped for it, with no weapons, and apparently only her feet for transportation. Naziim spoke up for them. "Rashiq...she seems more lost, or perhaps crazy, than she seems a spy. Whipping...could we not simply banish her from our lands?"
Rashiq took an angry step forward. Clara had looked up, while they talked. "Must I do everything myself, to save you fools?" Rashiq asked. Drawing a knife he turned back towards the post. Clara managed only a shocked intake of breath, sure that he was going to kill her. But he went behind the post, and cut her hands free. Her freedom lasted only a moment however, as they stood her up, running a rope down from the ring atop the post, and retying her hands above her head. While Rashiq was busy, Naziim pulled his son aside.
In a whisper, he told him "Take my fastest horse. Ride to Iziraban, and fetch Azar. Only one of Allah's true servants can help her now. Try not to let yourself be seen leaving. Now go!" he hissed.
"Now we get the truth." Rashiq brought a heavy horsewhip down hard across Clara's back. She screamed, trying to pull away.
"Ask her again now" Rashiq said, pointing with the whip.
"No" Sharil stood, one fist pressing into her leg. "I won't be party to this barbarity. I don't know were she came from, but I'm sure she's not a spy." Sharil crossed her arms, and turned away, defiantly. Rashiq walked over, grabbing her arm, and turning her forcefully.
"You will do as I say, or I'll let you taste the whip too."
Sharil's eyes narrowed. "Do that...and you'll answer to my father for it."
Rashiq thought for a moment, then looked to the old merchant. "You. You will tell me her words. Now!" The old man regarded Rashiq with an icy stare for a moment.
"I'm late for tea. If you will excuse me" with that, he hobbled off towards his tent. Rashiq glared at Clara for a moment, then threw the whip to the ground and stormed off into camp.
"Milord, a rider is here. He claims to be Mohammed, son of one Naziim, requesting your aid. Should I send him away?" The servant's voice hinted slightly of distaste for the visitor.
"Naziim's son? What is he doing here? Send him to me at once." The servant slipped out, and returned a few minutes latter with a wind-blown boy. After announcing him, the servant quietly left, closing the door behind him. Mohammed stared at the room, awe struck, for a moment. Items from far off lands decorated two walls, while glass windows allowed light in. Shelves of books filled most of the rest of the available wall space.
Azar stepped from behind his desk, and nudged the boy out of his daze "You've grown much since last I visited your father." Mohammed looked at him, blinking once like he'd only just discovered he was in the room.
"What news do you bring me?" Azar asked, leaning back against the desk. Mohammed quickly told him about the strange girl they had captured. With some prompting, he described all the events of the morning and afternoon as close as he could remember.
Azar fingered his beard as he spoke, once he had heard the whole story. "Rashiq sees spies and assassins in every shadow. We must move quickly, or he may kill her. You have already rode many hours - do you ride back with me, or do you wish to follow in the morning?"
"Our camp will be hard to find in the dark, if you've not visited it recently. I'll ride with you!" Mohammed was delighted at being asked, after so often simply being ordered to do this or that without a choice. Also, he knew Azar was a member of the Order of the Crescent, which was equal to any order of Knighthood in the Christian lands. He considered it a great privilege to be his guide. Azar pulled a cord at the corner of the room, near his desk. A few moments later, a servant appeared at the door, as if by magic.
"Have two horses prepared, and bring my lightest armor. We ride before the sun sets!" as the servant departed, he gestured to his young guide. "Come. We must eat, if we are to ride all night."
They left Clara as she was; her wrists tied high above her head. By getting on her tiptoes, she was able to turn around away from the post, so that she could see. After what she guessed was about three hours, the sun started to set. The sky was clear, and the temperature began to drop with the setting sun. As it was getting dark, a girl came with food and water for the guard. She said something to the guard as he began to eat, and he mumbled a reply, with a slight wave in Clara's direction. She stood, bringing a cup with her. Wordlessly, she lifted a cup with water to Clara's parched lips. The girl stayed until the guard had finished eating then took away the dishes. Shortly after she left, another figure walked up to the corral. It was the girl that had translated earlier. She spoke to the guard, then approached.
"A man with a full stomach is more easily persuaded. My name is Sharil, I didn't have time to mention it earlier." She reached up, and lowered the blue veil that covered her face.
If she had felt better, Clara might have been awed by Sharil's beauty. As it was, she was merely relieved to be able to see the expressions on her face. Clara forced herself to be courteous "Clara O'Connell. Pleased to meet you." She resisted adding 'forgive me if I don't shake your hand' She was in enough trouble as it was. But she was tired and sore enough to be blunt. "So... have they decided what to do with me?" She felt very odd trying to have a polite conversation with someone, while she was hanging from a post. It was most awkward.
"No... Rashiq has said nothing more, so far. I refused to translate if he continued to hit you. You said you are from... Caloudo?" she asked, trying to remember the name Clara had said earlier.
"Colorado. Boulder, it's north of Denver. So... am I in Iraq, or Iran, or Baghdad?" She tried to force herself not to think of her aching arms and wrists. She had to find out where she was, and how she had gotten there. Then maybe she could find a way to escape.
Sharil was hesitant, "I'm sorry, I know of no such places. Tell me how you got here. Did perhaps a dragon or Djinn abduct you?"
Clara listened, watching Sharil's face closely. She seemed completely serious. 'Maybe they're superstitious enough that they believe in myths here' she thought. She decided to play it along "No, does that happen in your lands much?"
"Not much, dragons especially are very rare. But the tribes to the far West have trouble sometimes with Djinn's. They steal their cattle, and give nothing in return. One can do little except appease a Djinn. Luckily, they don't care much for the plains, they actually like the heat of the desert." Sharil shrugged "To each their own, so long as they keep to themselves. A merchant I talked to once, said that dragons coming out of the North could be a problem. You look a bit like him, so it seemed logical to ask."
Clara couldn't believe what she was hearing. She couldn't believe anything that had happened, from the moment she sat down on the rock in the forest. She decided to keep trying. At least Sharil was company. "I was sitting on a rock, when this weird little dust storm kicked up. Next thing I know, I'm out of the forest, and sitting in the middle of a field. I've been chased, threatened, and questioned ever since. I'm just sure I must be dreaming all this, but I still haven't been able to wake up." Tears were beginning to roll down her cheeks, and she was shivering. 'Hypothermia', she observed absently. 'If the temperature keeps dropping, I won't have to worry about the guy with the sword in the morning.'
"Hmm, did you sense that the dust storm was alive? Perhaps it was a wind spirit."
Clara shook her head no. "It was just there, and then I was here. There was a flash of light too, as I recall." She began to think 'I'm talking to a crazy person. A really nice crazy person, but still crazy. Maybe they all got gassed.' She looked up suddenly, and Sharil followed her gaze. A group of men, carrying torches, was approaching out of the darkness. They could see that it was Rashiq and several of his supporters.
"So, having a nice little chat with our spy? Or are you a spy too?" said Rashiq, his hands on his hips. "Hold her!" As he pointed, two men grabbed Sharil. "Now then, are you going to tell me what she says?"
"I believe she was abducted by a wind spirit. It could be nothing else!" Sharil quickly blurted out.
"I think you are lying to me, and in league with her. We will give you each 15 lashes, then see if you wish to speak the truth. If not, 15 more. Eventually I will have the truth, or there will be nothing left of you."
Sharil angrily replied "My father will have your head on a plate, if you dare touch me!"
"Your father..." Rashiq replied evenly, "is a merchant. At worst, I will give him some gold for his lost bride price, and explain that you were a liar who he would never have married off." Rashiq's guards hesitated a moment. "Do it!" he bellowed, and they hastened to comply.
As they lashed Sharil's hands together, Clara spoke to her "What are they doing? What's going on?" She didn't understand any of the angry exchange.
Sharil struggled for a moment, then answered as they continued to bind her "I told him that an air spirit abducted you, but he doesn't believe it. He believes nothing that is not already in his own head. He is sure you are a spy, and intends to beat us both until that is what he hears."
The guards ran a second rope through the post ring, then hoisted Sharil up by her hands next to Clara. Clara made a quick decision. "Tell him I'm a spy. Tell him whatever he wants to hear. It's the only way he'll stop."
Before Sharil could reply, the guards advanced to turn Clara around towards the post. Rashiq addressed them again "Now, we shall have the truth!" Before the guards reached her, they were interrupted by a voice from behind them.
"Only Allah can give you the truth my friend. It can not be found by beating women" Rashiq spun around, to see who had said this. Azar stood at the entrance to the corral. His armored coat was made of silk, but tiny hexagons belied the steel rings sewn into critical places. A hardened leather plate, laboriously decorated, covered the top of his chest, and he wore a small buckler on his left arm.
"Who are you! Why do you interrupt?" screamed Rashiq.
"I am Azar, of the order of the Crescent. I am interrupting, because I don't see a need to beat anyone needlessly. Now, let us talk, and we will settle this in a civilized manner."
Rashiq's eyes blazed with a crazed inner flame. Drawing his scimitar, he told Azar "I will finish this my way. I will cut down any fool who gets in my way!"
"As you wish" came Azar's even reply.
Azar's sword flashed free in the flickering torchlight. The fight lasted but seconds. Rashiq charged, his sword high. Azar parried high then swiftly brought his sword down and back across Rashiq's middle. Rashiq stumbled forward bent over, clutching his torso. His sword began to drop from his hand. Before it could fall, Azar finished it, decapitating him. The body fell about a yard from Clara's feet. Clara did the only sensible thing she could think of. She passed out.