“What was my father like?”
The Arabian desert dwellers gave each other sad yet mirthful looks across the table. Having made their way back to the caravanserai, they shared the main hall with weary merchants who had crossed the harsh desert terrain in pursuit of large financial windfalls.
Hafthah smiled. “You have taught us a lot this morning, Zia. It is only fair that we return the favour.”
The three ladies had continued their leisurely walk around the newer portions of Sakakah, taking in the scale and architecture of the buildings. Many a building had unique carvings, whether in bas-reliefs spanning the full length of walls or in an eclectic array of columns. Zia had amazed the pair with her knowledge of their sources, her mother more so than Sayeh. Explaining the differences between Greek and Roman columns, and Chin and Hind character stylings, the Sand Pirate had been able to appreciate it through her years of relieving travellers of their merchandise. Hafthah, living the nomadic lifestyle of the Bedouin tribes, had lacked the exposure to such finery and their origins to fully marvel at them.
“Your father was a well-meaning man, but a product of the land. He inherited control of a tribe that had already been dwindling over time due to the Romans conquering territories as far to the east as possible.”
The Persian nodded. “My hometown was part of the Roman Empire for a time, until the Parthians regained it.”
“The changes included Petra being abandoned, as the trade routes were diverted away from it towards more northern locations. The Nabataeans had no choice but to move on, spreading eastwards into the desert as nomadic tribes. The increase in people wandering the sands affected the various oases, as supplies of water and foods had to sustain more people. After centuries, resourcefulness could only take you so far.”
“The tribes have shrunk?”
“Yes. The usual practice of raising herds of camels has not changed, but so many tribes trying to barter with merchants meant they were getting less for their trades. There are regular travels of desert tribes towards the Hejaz Mountains in the south-west of the desert, where the oases produce fruits and other foods found nowhere else. The same issue occurs, so the tribes have not been able to grow unless the gods look favourably upon you.”
“As they did upon you when you got to Sakakah to deliver us?”
Hafthah smiled widely. “I had invoked every god I knew of to ask for their help. I am fairly certain that I invoked your Hormazd in an attempt to survive the sandstorm. I may not follow its religion… Which one is it?”
“I may not follow this Zoroastrianism, but Hormazd did favour me and guide me towards Shamali’s doors.”
“It rewards good words, good deeds and good thoughts. Hormazd must have recognised this in you.”
“That must be so,” Sayeh agreed. “Despite all of the trials we faced in our time as part of Father’s tribe, Mother was never bitter or held grudges, and helped in every way she could. That she was considered an outsider is the only reason for anyone’s scorn.”
“It would have served no purpose, and drawn further scorn on us. Your father was already disappointed that I had borne a daughter, as that meant he would have to provide a significant dowry when Sayeh married.”
Zia looked to her sister. “Were you married?”
Sayeh gave an almost horrified look. “Of course not! I was able to fight every boy in the tribe, to the point that they feared me and would not consider me. If a travelling tribe met with ours, any interest was met with ridicule from our folk for my misbehaving ways.” She pouted and frowned, waving an index finger in the air. “One must have an obedient wife, or at least be able to beat her into submission. Since they could do neither, I was doomed.”
“It was painful to see Sayeh in such a way,” Hafthah added. “Such a strong and positive girl, being brought down by petty jealousy of others. I knew that her path would be outside of the tribe, where she could find her way without the negativity of others dragging her down. But it took some years before she did leave.”
“How come, Sayeh?”
Sayeh regarded Zia. “In spite of everything, I still loved my Father. He would reinforce the opinions everyone had of me, and would beat me if I displeased him enough. It was a double-edged sword that I could not be married off, and if I did he would have to send precious tribe resources with me.”
“Did that contribute to your killing him?”
The Sand Pirate lowered her head. “The beatings got more and more frequent, as did the words of disdain. One night, after a more successful trading with other tribes, he ate and drank too much. He took it upon himself to proclaim my uselessness. Once everyone had gone to their tents for the night, he decided to enter my tent and attack. He hadn’t expected me to have a knife, and the drink slowed his reflexes. I hoped that his intoxication took the edge off the pain as he died.”
“I sent her away from the camp that night,” Hafthah said. “I knew the consequences would be heavy the next morning if Sayeh remained. I provided as much provision as possible, and the best camel possible. She had always been resourceful, so I knew she would always find a way to survive.”
“I made Mother promise to say that it was entirely my fault, and that everything from the killing to my escape had happened without her knowledge. It was the only way that she would be able to remain in the tribe and not suffer for my actions.”
They sat in silence for a time, concentrating on their meals. As they finished, a ragged messenger ran at pace into the main hall, urgently seeking Shamali. As he delivered his package to the owner, he collapsed in exhaustion. As he called on his staff to help the man, he considered the item and its attached letter. Finishing the letter, he opened the package.
Paling as he saw its contents, his eyes searched and locked on the three ladies.
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