PART I

PART I

Chapter 1

 

Requiem for the Furies

 

Sahara Desert, 1895

 

Najwa’s hand shaded her eyes from a harsh sun.

Thousands of miles of skin-slashing peaks and wind-packed curves of hardened sand dunes surrounded by a thousand more miles of the softer, hotter, thicker sands of the deep desert. She pulled her haik from her face and felt sand crystals in every pore of her skin, crusted around her eyes, stuck to her lips, caked in her ears.

When sand and wind mate, there is no refuge. When sand and heat make love, there is no greater power. But the desert was a wounded heart and a thief, hiding life in plain sight. The desert was also a killer, and when it killed, it left no evidence. The scene of the crime was a million miles of cruel.

She saw nothing ahead or behind her, no movement for miles, but that didn’t mean there was nothing to see. Najwa took a sip of water from the goatskin bladder her mother had given her.  She brushed a thick layer of sand off her face, scraped it from the corners and lids of her eyes and from inside her ears. Turning in the saddle, Najwa struggled to pull the loosened haik tighter around her face and neck. She crushed the turban farther onto her forehead until the warp and weft of the material gave a slight wedge of shade for her amber-flecked hazel eyes. 

Although eventide was less than an hour away, it was still hot. She’d have to make a sparse camp for herself as she had gone farther than she should have away from the main camp. A dangerous and distant ride at this hour. 

She saw a small grove of Acacia scrub a quarter-mile ahead. With a click of her tongue, she coaxed her mount forward. Arriving, she dismounted and walked around the spindly brush, kicking at the base of the bushes to scare off any errant reptiles. She gathered up dead twigs for a meager fire with enough heat to boil water to make her tea. 

The sky darkened with the scarlet blue glow of a setting sun. Behind her a pinprick of light danced from the bonfire her father had made to guide the search party. The fire was a star in the middle of a black mountain silhouette placed against a sky still lit from the waning sun. She knew where she was—four miles from the base camp and six miles from her mountainside home.

Najwa sipped her tea, letting the sweetness and the warmth settle her nervous stomach. She would return to El-Hashem’s base at dawn. Compare notes with the other searchers. Maybe someone had seen something—fresh camel droppings, a piece of cloth, a discarded bit of rope, an empty water pouch. Anything. 

Najwa had traveled farther in this direction than Nora could have gone. She knew that, but out of an abundance of thoroughness and desperation, Najwa wanted to rule out this far and hostile section of their search. She imagined El-Hashem’s initial frown as it recast itself into a semblance of resignation from one who knew and understood the range of Najwa’s excursion…and emotions. 

Nora. Nora Mandrake, with unthinking urges and reckless abandon, had broken Najwa’s heart. With callous disregard for their love, she had destroyed their implicit vow. Humiliated her. Now, she was lost. She had been heading for Najwa’s village when a violent sandstorm separated her from the rest of the caravan. 

She wants to see me, now, with the damage done?

If the desert hadn’t killed her, maybe Najwa should. The foolish Englishwoman thought that she could just traipse into the desert, show up at Najwa’s door and be forgiven. Except she had to go and get herself lost.

What she ought to do when she found her—she would find her—is push her against an Argan tree, wrap a rope around her waist, tie her up and rip her clothing off piece by piece. Nora would think it some kind of game. Najwa would lean against her, slide down her naked body, place her mouth where Nora liked, go deep inside her and, in reprisal for the drought of the bereaved, slake her own thirst. Quench the parched and arid caverns of her deserted heart with the greedy intemperance of drunken derangement. She could. She could do that. Probably.

Najwa drank the rest of her tea and poured more.

She could match Nora’s hunger with her own. She could mirror Nora’s pleas for more with…more. She would breathe fast and shallow, she would moan, low or loud or both. She would respond to Nora’s seductions and whisper a few of her own. Bring Nora to a fever pitch and follow her there. Encourage Nora’s hands to seek the source of her unsated soul, her vexed affection, her furious heart. Allow Nora, tied to a tree, to take them both to the edge of blindness, the heights of ecstasy, the depths of madness. As only Nora could. 

Then she ought to leave her to burn in the hot hell of endless sand. She should ride away without a backward glance. She could imagine Nora’s grimace of surprise as her mind grasped the truth, eyes flashing with the fire of pain and temper. She could imagine the spitting rage of epithets Nora would be flinging to the wind. She would ride away until all Nora saw was sand.

Sand could be Nora’s new mistress.

 

<>