Elfhild awoke to the sound of a horn blaring somewhere close by. Rubbing the sleep from her eyes, she blearily looked around. Twilight had fallen over the desert, but she saw the lights of a village in the distance. The horn sounded again, and she observed a distinctive pattern - one long blast followed by two short ones - and then the sequence repeated. Obviously this was a signal that the approaching riders were friends. From the direction of the village, soon there was the answering response of another horn.
"Where are we?" she moaned. Exhausted from the heat and two days of wandering in the desert, she had been sleeping fitfully off and on for hours. She leaned back and felt the solid wall of Husu's chest pressing against her. Chuckling, he tightened his hold around her. For a moment, she imagined that he was Esarhaddon, but then she realized, with a stabbing feeling in her heart, that her master was dead.
"Ah, you have finally awakened after a long sleep," Husu remarked in Westron. "We are approaching the Oasis of the Solitary Cedar, which belongs to my tribe by right of conquest." He smiled, thinking of the many skirmishes with other tribes over the years that had won them the oasis. "My father, Shakh Najor, is the chieftain of the Dolrujâtar."
Shouting jubilantly, the men kicked their horses into a canter. As they approached the small settlement, guards drew open the main gate to the stockade. Elfhild and Özlem could see the sharpened points of date palm branches, thorns and scrub brush which comprised the village wall. As the men rode their horses through the opening, barking and howling dogs rushed from the lantern-lit streets and alleys to greet them. Several of the men standing near the gate cursed the beasts and pelted them with garbage, driving the snarling dogs away. Zarkfir and his brothers rode their horses into a large open space, which was surrounded by low, rectangular tents of dark goat hair. There, waiting for them, was a group of men and boys. Beyond the men, dark-eyed women and young children peered shyly out from tent openings.
"Welcome back, my sons!" An older man, tall and stately, his mustache and beard streaked with silver, stepped away from the group and greeted Zarkfir, Husu and Kangtar. As he looked behind the horses, his bushy eyebrows lowered in a frown, making deep furrows upon his tawny, weathered forehead. "I see you did not bring back any of the stolen sheep, or the thieves who pilfered our flocks." The older man's face, before a wreath of smiles, sagged in disappointment.
"My honored father," Zarkfir replied, "we managed to find and kill two of the thieves, but unfortunately, they had already slain the animals which they had stolen."
"While I would wish that you had been able to return the missing animals, at least you killed two of the villains." Shakh Najor's voice held the bite of disapproval. The other men were silent as they listened to the reprimand, knowing that a rebuke from the chieftain, even a mild one, was a bitter blow. Shakh Najor made no allowances for failure, even when it came to his sons.
"Father, at least two of the devils will never be able to steal again. We sent them screaming into the arms of Death," Zarkfir told him conciliatorily, hoping that would appease his stern father.
"You did well there, my son," the older man replied. "They had been stealing from us for a long time." He looked up at his sons, who had not yet dismounted from their horses. "I see that you found something more valuable than the lost sheep and goats." The Shakh smiled, noting that the men and boys in the crowd murmured in approval. "How did you come by the women? Were they prisoners of the Sand Orcs?"
"After killing the two brigands, we resumed our search for the others. We were riding along the road that leads south when we came across these two slave women." Zarkfir smiled, knowing that even if he had displeased his father by not salvaging any of the stolen sheep and goats, the old man was at least pleased with the sight of nubile young women. "If you wish, we will resume the hunt tomorrow, but I think by this time, it will be impossible to find the orcs. The brutes have probably gone back to their lair."
"You are perhaps right, my son," the Shakh replied, his eyes on the girls.
"Now, Father, what do you think of the booty which we have brought back with us?" Husu spoke up, eager to change the subject of their failure.
Shakh Najor squinted as he looked to Elfhild, who was sitting on the saddle in front of Husu. "My son, unfortunately, I cannot see them well. My eyes were not what they once were." He gestured for the man beside him to lift up the torch in his hand. Elfhild blinked as the bright light was moved closer to her face. "Ah, yes," Shakh Najor looked into Elfhild's eyes for a long time, and then his gaze took in the rest of her. "Very pleasing," he murmured. "Her face still has the look of innocence. Perhaps she has never known the touch of a man?" His eyes shimmering with unbridled lust, he looked from the girl to his son.
"Father, we did not use the women for our pleasure, so your question must go unanswered," Zarkfir replied, feeling uncomfortable at the chuckles of the gathered men and boys. Did the old man always have to make his sons feel less than men? He had always wondered if perhaps their father were jealous of their youth and strength.
"My son, you have the makings of a slave trader rather than a herdsman," Shakh Najor chuckled. "Of course, you kept them intact. They are more valuable that way. Now I would look at the other one." He motioned towards Özlem, and the servant stepped closer to her, holding the torch aloft. "Very good, my son." He smiled approvingly. "Now I know that you and your brothers must be weary after your long journey. When you have dismounted, come inside my tent, where my women will prepare some refreshments."
The two men exchanged glances, and then Zarkfir slid from his horse's back and helped Özlem down, while Husu lifted Elfhild from the horse. Two servants came out of the knot of men around the older shakh and led the horses away to be cooled down and watered. Shakh Najor led his sons inside the tent and then motioned for one of the women present to come to him. The woman looked Özlem and Elfhild up and down, her dark eyes appraising them. When she seemed satisfied, she turned to the old shakh. "My lord?"
"Take these two to your tent, Shabimi, and see to their comfort," he told her. The woman bowed to him and then motioned for the two girls to follow her.
"Sit down, my sons," Shakh Najor told them after the women had left. Gracefully, the older man sat down cross-legged on the cushions. "Although it is late, I am sure that my wives and handmaids will be able to find something for you to eat." He smiled, signing to the women.
"Father, some bread and cheese will do us quite well," Zarkfir informed his father, and his brothers nodded in agreement.
"Father, while I appreciate your desire to see that we dine, I am most eager to return to my own wives," Husu told him politely.
"Patience, my son. You are with your wives almost every night," Najor chuckled. "Now I would hear of your adventures."
"Father," Zarkfir spoke up, controlling the irritation in his voice, "I told you most of what happened. When we caught up with the orc bandits this morning, we surprised them. They had made a small camp in the shade of a rocky ridge. There were three of them, all in a state of drunkenness."
Shakh Najor frowned and shook his head. "Drunkenness is an evil, a destroyer of the mind and body and a robber of the soul." He looked up as his women set down a tray of round, dark bread and cheese, an earthen container of goat milk, and cups. After the women had washed the men's hands and dried them, the Shakh filled the cups for his sons and himself and then waited until the women had quietly retreated into the interior of the tent. "So they were intoxicated," Najor repeated what his son had said. "I should expect no better from such wicked creatures. You had said you slew two of them. Why did you not kill them all?" He wrapped his fingers around the small cup.
"Unfortunately, things did not go the way we planned." Zarkfir lowered his head in embarrassment. "When we came upon the scoundrels, we made short work of two of them, but one of the wretches, who was more clever and faster than the others, managed to get away. We were in pursuit of the devil when we came upon the women. My father," the young man looked up, his expression unreadable, "if you should wish it, we could try to track him tomorrow."
"No, no, my son. Let him die of his wounds." Gazing in the direction of the distant Mountain, the Shakh tore off a piece of bread. "Let the Giver of Gifts bless this food," he intoned solemnly, and his sons bowed their heads in reverence.
It was not until after the meal was finished and the Shakh's women had washed and dried all the men's hands, that Najor again broached the subject of the two girls. "Zarkfir, the women that fate has put in your hands... what do you plan to do with them?"
Zarkfir considered his father's question for a few moments. "My lord, if you desire them, they are yours." He noticed that his younger brothers looked disappointed.
"My son, you honor your father, and I am pleased." Najor waited to speak until after one of his women had set down a tray with a brass teapot and four earthenware cups on the table. His eyes thanked the woman as he took a cup of the scalding hot liquid. "While I am sure I would find both women pleasing in my bed, I must decline your most generous offer. Neither you nor your brother Kangtar have wives or concubines, while I have just taken a new bride to my couch. She and my other wives are more than adequate at this time." He smiled at his son. "As the eldest, Zarkfir, you have first rights to both of them. We can always find a woman for Kangtar." The older shakh watched his youngest son's eyes and saw a glint of anger before his son looked away. "After the women have been bathed and given refreshments, you have my permission to take them to your tent."
"Father," Zarkfir replied respectfully, "while at any other time I would relish the opportunity, tonight I must confess that I want more than anything to have a bath, and then sleep the slumber of the exhausted. Tomorrow night will be soon enough."
"My son," Shakh Najor reached out and touched his son's shoulder, "since when has any man ever turned down the opportunity to have two lovely young women in his bed at one time?" He chuckled, deliberately trying to get a rise out of his son. He was pleased when he saw the look of discomfort on Zarkfir's serious face.
"Father, if the truth be known, I prefer to question both women before I make a decision," Zarkfir replied, his voice strained. "I know nothing about them, and we found them under strange circumstances. Besides, they have been wandering through the desert for days, and the blonde girl is suffering from heat exhaustion."
"They are spoils, my son, booty, yours to use as you wish." The old man squeezed his son's shoulder harder, enjoying his chagrin.
"We will discuss it later, Father," Zarkfir stated coldly. "Now with your permission, I would like to retire."
"Certainly, my son." Shakh Najor rose to his feet, a signal that the audience with his sons had concluded. "The blessings of the Eye upon you, my sons. May your rest restore your strength." He winked at Husu, knowing that his middle son would get much rest, for his wife's belly was big with child, and his concubine was not well, still recovering from the birth of her first babe. Husu's smile was forced.
After the three young men had gone, the Shakh looked to his favorite wife, who had just returned after escorting the two captives to her tent. A slender woman with dark hair flecked with a few gray streaks, she had piercing black eyes that flashed when she looked at him. Dressed in a soft blue caftan with matching pantaloons, she was still beautiful in spite of her forty-odd summers. She looked at her husband until he gave her permission to sit down beside him. As his first wife, she held a high place in his harem and had control over his entire household. She enjoyed her power over the other women.
"My lord," she murmured as he slid an arm around her slender waist, "do you find the women pleasing?"
"Not as pleasing as you, my lovely desert flower," Najor told her as he stroked her breast, his lips brushing lightly over her graceful neck.
"My lord," she laughed softly, "perhaps you should consider giving both of them to our son Zarkfir. I understand from talking to the two girls that he saved them from certain death in the desert." Shabimi, although she would never say a word, was highly displeased that her husband had taken another much younger concubine to his bed. She could not blame the other woman, though, for she was nothing more than a silly girl, and while he could not always perform satisfactorily because of his age, her husband's lusts were insatiable. Besides, another woman, whether she be wife, concubine or slave, meant that much less work for her. Still, since Najor had bought the girl from a traveling slave trader, he had not been visiting her tent as much. Soon, though, Shabimi thought with gleeful relish, the girl would probably be pregnant, and when her belly grew large, her husband would lose interest in her until after the babe was born.
"My darling wife," Shakh Najor's voice was husky as he slid a hand down her pantaloons, "even though we have been married for over twenty years, you never fail to arouse my manhood."
"Ah, my love, your touch is so stirring," Shabimi murmured as she spread her legs apart. She knew that the two new girls had inflamed her husband's passions, and she was not about to discourage him. Still, she was determined to plant the seed in his mind that he should give the new women to his sons. She did not need two more rivals!
"Perhaps I will encourage Zarkfir to take both girls, but I now have other matters on my mind." Najor took her hand and placed it over his swollen manhood, which was tenting out his pantaloons. "Let us retire to my private chamber, my beautiful wife."
"If my lord increases in size," she gasped, pretending to be surprised, "he will tear the seams of his pantaloons!" She gripped him hard, her hand squeezing his burgeoning member.
"Come then, Shabimi, and put me off no longer!" Najor moaned as she stroked him. "I ache to be inside you!"
"Yes, my lord, certainly! But..." she hesitated, lowering her eyes, "I fear that I am far too fretful to serve my lord properly."
"What!" he exclaimed in dismay. "What matter can vex you so much?"
"I fear that my only son will never take a wife or concubine, and I will never have grandchildren." Shabimi's eyes became misty with tears. "After all, Zarkfir is approaching his twenty-sixth year, and has never found a woman who pleases him." She sighed heavily. "At least I suppose I should be grateful that he sent his lover away a few months ago. I thought that weak, lisping young poet had captured his heart for all eternity! At least Zarkfir finally developed the resolve to end their affair after the knave proved unfaithful." Shabimi had never believed that her son's relationship with the poet would ever be a lasting one, but knowing her son's inclinations, there was always the possibility that he would find a replacement. Since she was just as eager to keep the two new slave girls from her husband's bed as she was to see her son start a family, she would attempt to solve two problems with one sure strike. It never hurt to exercise her subtle control over her husband.
"Oh, my wife!" Najor's hand left hers as though it were a burning hot coal, and his lusty member began to wilt, dying an ignoble death. "Do not mention Zarkfir's transgressions now!" He shook his head sadly and put his hand to his forehead. "I thought he would never tire of that fellow! At least he has taken no others to his bed. Perhaps he is now free of the madness!"
"I hope so, my dearest lord," Shabimi returned solemnly, disguising her triumph with a gentle smile. "I thought my heart would break when he first took Lâkur as his lover, and then when the whole sordid affair continued, I thought the strain might kill me. And, my lord, I must confess in all honesty, sometimes I wonder if Kangtar might have the same desires. It would be well if wives and concubines were found for both of your sons, so they can sate their lusts upon women, instead of handsome young men." She stroked her husband's bearded cheek. "I praise the Giver of Gifts that Husu has never shown the same hunger!"
"My dearest," Najor told his wife, "I offered both women to Zarkfir for his amusement, but he refused, saying that before he decided anything, he must first question them. While I think he is often overly cautious, perhaps he is right on this occasion." He lightly stroked over her fingertips. "But fear not, my dear one. If these women do not prove suitable for my sons, I will find others for both of them." He gave her a reassuring smile and patted her hand. "I had not told you this yet, but several worthy shakhs, one quite wealthy and both honorable, have recently apprised me of their eligible daughters." He looked into his wife's eyes and was relieved to see that she seemed satisfied. His love for her was so great that he oft gave into her whims too quickly, but he could not help himself. It was a vast misfortune to be the slave of love - and the best of fortunes, as well!
"My lord, you relieve my mind." Shabimi touched her husband's member and smiled to herself when it began to rise once more to its former glory.
"Now that that has been settled, light of my life, let us now go to my couch, where we might have a little sport before going to sleep." His pleading eyes gazed into hers.
"Yes, my beloved," she murmured softly, smiling sweetly into his eyes.