As the Sun rose in the east, three ladies stood outside the gates of old Sakakah. Within the walls behind them, the caravanserai that had been the town’s livelihood for many centuries bustled with activity. The scorching heat of the summer months encouraged the merchant teams to leave early, seeking a portion of comfortable travel before the day’s suffering began. In stark contrast, the newer living areas of the town were quiet and still.
Hafthah looked to her daughters. “Follow me.”
Sayeh and Zia obediently followed her. The Sand Pirate did not divert her eyes from her mother’s back, while Zia looked all about her. Her first visit had not allowed her time to properly view her surroundings, with Yafeu quickly ushering his very large caravan towards their place of rest. The outer town’s stonework did not have the tell-tale wear of its inner portion, seeming to give it less character. Such things will come in time, when it has stood up against centuries of sandstorms, the Persian thought to herself.
As they wound through the town, Hafthah brought them to an area with many sizeable buildings. It spoke of the wealth of some members of the town.
Zia looked to the two ladies. “Who own these residences?”
Sayeh looked to her. “Town residents who spent a great deal of their lives as part of caravans, other travellers who came to love the town enough to stay here, or wealthy merchants who saw residing at the caravanserai as beneath their dignity. Many Shamali commissioned himself, using the wealth he amassed to help grow the town. However, there are four in this area of town he kept for himself.”
The Persian nodded. “That is very generous of him.”
Sayeh looked around impatiently. “Where are we going, Mother?”
Hafthah looked to her desert-dweller daughter. “I will explain when we get there.”
Walking along neatly paved streets, their mother guided them past side streets and intersections. After a time, Hafthah turned down a side street that was narrower than the others they had passed. Zia was surprised, as one could easily walk past and not notice it was there. The three walked in line down the passage in what seemed like respectful silence. As they arrived at a wrought iron gate, Hafthah removed a key from a pocket. Unlocking the gate, she gestured for her daughters to enter.
The passage opened onto a small courtyard. The walls bore no windows, and were beautifully carved with trees and plants. The paving was in a modest mosaic pattern, its triangles of alternating greens acting as a grassbed. In its centre, a tree of modest height sought to reach the height of the surrounding buildings, its green foliage protected from the elements.
The daughters followed their mother to the tree. In front of it, a metal plate sat amongst the tiles. The words etched into it were in Persian text.
Zia read the words.
“In memory of my dearest son, Arad. May Hormazd look after you, and protect you always. Your loving mother, Shadi.”
Zia knelt, offering a prayer to Hormazd, beseeching them to honour her mother’s request.
Sayeh turned to her mother. “How did Zia end up being given to Shadi?”
Hafthah considered her kneeling daughter, a great sadness in her eyes. “After I had delivered both of you, the physician informed me of what had happened. Shamali’s wife brought me food while I nursed you, and the pain was written all over her face. She had also lost children during birth, and the pain she felt for others was as raw as her own had been.
“I sought Shadi after a pair of days, but was told that she was not within the caravanserai. I begged to see her, and eventually Shamali’s wife agreed to take me to her.” She gestured to the buildings around her. “I found her kneeling where Zia is now, without these buildings surrounding us. The pain in her eyes, the trail of tears down her cheeks, it was heart-wrenching. She told me how she would never be able to face her husband, as she had made the trip across the desert despite his protests. I told her of my situation, and how I feared for the life of one of my children. I begged her to take one of you.”
Zia rose from her prayer, and stood beside her sister. “How were you able to decide which of us went with her?”
Despite welling tears, Hafthah smiled. “I brought her to see you both, and let her hold each of you. Before then, I did not know how I could choose between you. Sayeh, you cried as if a demon had hold of you, which made Zia cry also. As I took you back, she picked up Zia. You quieted immediately. When I had looked after you in the days before, you were the most difficult for me to calm. It was a sign from the gods, and so I let her have Zia while I kept Sayeh.”
The Persian rushed over to hug her birth mother, her lingering doubt over why she was given away and not Sayeh answered. Haftheh returned the embrace, tears now running down her cheeks.
Zia looked at the walls around them. “Shamali owns these houses?”
Hafthah nodded. “He and his wife promised Shadi that they would always look after her son’s burial site, and I promised to regularly visit in her stead. She said that she would never be able to return, the pain of doing so too intense to contemplate.”
The Sand Pirate looked on, her own tears threatening to fall. “What happened with Father?”
Their mother gave a small laugh. “You know how he was. He came in a day later, demanding to know where his mistress and child were. I quickly attended, showing you to him. He did not look happy at having a daughter, but you calmed enough in his arms. Demanding we leave immediately, I collected my things and we left. The last thing I remember seeing as I left the caravanserai was Shadi standing in the door, Zia in her arms, with a look of gratitude I could not even begin to describe.”
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