Sahara Desert, El Golea, August,
Fear drained away as he watched her from underneath
his lashes. One long, gold-painted nail beckoned to him. She lay draped across
the chaise. The blood-red silks that hung from her shoulders were fastened only
with a girdle of twined gold at her waist. Outside, the wind began to wail. Sand
shushed against the walls of the tent. The scent of cinnamon and something else
he could not name suffused the hot, dry air inside. In the dim light her skin
glowed with perspiration and the very air vibrated with her vitality. Under the
almost-transparent fabric her nipples were clearly visible. He did not want to
respond to her. But his swelling need surged over him.
"Come," she said. He could lose himself in those black eyes, lined with kohl.
He staggered to his feet. His naked body was still damp from bathing in the muddy
pool of the oasis. His shoulder bled, as well as his thigh. She would like that.
She pointed to a place at her side. He dropped to his knees again. He knew what
she wanted, and suddenly he wanted to give it to her more than he had ever wanted
anything in his life. He lifted his mouth as she bent her head. Her breasts hung
forward, tantalizing. Her lips were soft against his. He kissed her hungrily.
Some part of him knew his danger, but the throbbing in his loins cycled up until
he was lost.
As she reached for him her eyes began
to glow red, blood-red like her silks.
and low moaning woke him from the nightmare. His veins and arteries carried pain
to every fiber of his body. The moaning was his own. The whispering was Arabic.
"Do it now, holy one." He cracked one eye. Light stabbed him. A cluster of men
in burnooses hovering over him. The open door silhouetted them in excruciating
radiance. Light gleamed on a raised sword. He was too weak, too dispirited to
resist death. He could only clench his eyes shut.
"What are you doing, man?" someone yelled. "Jenks! Kiley!"
cowered away from the light, trembling.
"Let him finish it,"
an Arab hissed, in English now. "This one is bad. He has the scars."
"No one will be killed here. This soil is England," the Englishman roared.
Boot heels clattered. He chanced opening his eyelids a crack. The light was cut
by a crowd of bodies in the door. They wore uniforms.
these men from the compound." The sword clattered to the ground. The Arabs were
hustled out. The Englishman came to stand over him as the door swung mercifully
shut. "Why do they bother" He'll die soon anyway."
"Pray to your
God he does die, Excellency," the single remaining Arab whispered. The voices
were growing indistinct. "And I will pray to Allah."
wavered. Death, he thought. Was that even possible for one such as he?
The Englishman reached forward. "What's this?"
The leather pouch at his neck jerked. The thong gave way. Darkness ate at the
edges of his vision. He heard the gasp as they saw the contents of the pouch.
"Who are you, my friend?"
He could not
answer. The darkness was winning. The room dimmed.
"Post a guard.
Make sure he's English." He heard it from a distance.
Sahara Desert, Bi'er Taghieri, September,
Elizabeth Rochewell gazed around the tiny room;
whitewashed walls, a dark wood dresser carved in the native style she found clumsy
and dear at once, the bed covered with her own counterpane. How many rooms in
how many towns strewn across the Levant and North Africa just like this had she
seen since she joined her father on his expeditions? Fifty? Blended together,
they represented the only home she had known, the only place she felt comfortable.
She leaned over to draw the black lace mantilla off the bed by
one corner. She had never thought to use this souvenir of Barcelona in such a
manner. Indeed she had expected none of this. The pillar that had crumbled after
forty-five hundred years, give or take, tore her father from her so suddenly,
so unfairly, she was stunned. It could not be an act of God, for what God could
be cruel enough to kill a man at forty-eight, still a very healthy specimen?
The spotted mirror above the dresser showed eyes bloodshot from lack of sleep
as she placed the mantilla. That she couldn't help. She had not slept for more
than a few minutes at a time since the awful event. She couldn't help the face,
either. She got it from her Egyptian mother. Her wide-set eyes were neither gold
nor green but something in between. Her mouth was too wide for beauty, and her
complexion could only be considered brown. Her dark hair was braided and coiled
around her head, the only way she could manage it without crimping irons to tame
its curls. Even so, escaping feathers frothed about her face. Then there was her
figure. She might be well formed enough, but she was short. There were just no
two ways about it. Her father said her mother was the most beautiful woman he
had ever met and that Beth looked very like her. He must have been blinded by
love. She would never be attractive to anyone in England, or Africa. There she
was too Egyptian, here she was too British.
At least she was
useful. Beth had spent all her adult life helping her father catalogue the history
of mankind in the physical traces of ancient times left behind. After a disastrous
experience at Crofts School for girls, she had escaped to join her father. It
was she who organized her father's expeditions, she who translated from the ancient
texts the clues that guided them on their quest for the lost sister city of Petra.
She studied the aging of stones to date their finds. She had found a place at
her father's side. In Africa, people thought of her as some strange creature,
not quite woman. She existed beyond conventions.
But that existence
might have disappeared with her father's death. She pulled the mantilla over her
braids. She did not own a black dress, but a round-necked gray cambric gown with
a single black ribbon at the throat would do. She could hardly believe she was
getting ready for her father's funeral. He may have been an unconventional parent,
but he had loved her as much as she loved him. He was her best friend, her confidant,
her professional mentor and the sole support of a life she loved. What would she
do without him?
A bluff knock sounded downstairs. She heard the
door open quietly on leather hinges, the small man who owned this apartment salute
"Monsieur L'Bareaux," she greeted him in the tiny
parlor next to her sleeping quarters.
He was a large man, her
father's partner on the last three expeditions. Monsieur L'Bareaux's mustache
was black and expressive; his kindly eyes an indeterminate gray that could go
hard when bargaining. That he was French might surprise, since France and England
were incessantly at war. But out here, wars were subordinate to the lure of antiquities.
It was the French who, initially armed with money from Napoleon, had swept across
the Mediterranean looking for traces of human dynasties long dead. It was a Frenchman,
Monsieur Broussard, who had discovered the city of Petra in Palestine six years
M. L'Bareaux was more interested in salability than historical
significance. But M. L'Bareaux's way coincided with her father's dream. As Edwin
Rochewell and his daughter trekked about North Africa looking for the lost city
of Kivala, they cataloged one wonderful repository of antiquities after another,
leaving M. L'Bareaux plenty of opportunity to send back treasures to his dealers
in Paris, and provide enough money to help fund the next expedition.
"Do you bear up, Mademoiselle Beth?" His grave gaze roved over her.
"Yes." Was that true? Beth had not yet been able to cry for her father. She could
not yet even comprehend his death. Did that mean she was "bearing up?"
"That?s a good girl," M. L'Bareaux patted her shoulder. "You are tres fortissant."
"You really want to know whether I'm ready," Beth returned in
the forthright way that disconcerted so many people in England. "I am."
M. L'Bareaux opened the door and she plodded down the stairs. She mustn't think
about the fact that she was burying her father today. She must think how to get
what she needed from Monsieur L'Bareaux. It was the only way to carry on her father's
dream. It was the only way to preserve the only existence she knew.
The nightmares receded. He was awake, but he didn't open his eyes.
Something had changed. The burning pain in his veins was gone. In fact, he felt...strong,
stronger than he had ever been. Blood pulsed through his arteries. His heart thumped
a rhythm in his chest. His senses assaulted him. Linen rasped over his bare skin
from a light coverlet. The aroma of beef and onions cooking in olive oil was obvious,
as was the jasmine. But dust, the faintest of scented oils, perhaps used long
ago, and the smell of leather lurked just under the cooking. How could he smell
those things? There was a joyful quality to the surging of his blood. He thrust
it away. She told him she felt that way when she fed, just to torment him.
Despair fought with the joy thrumming inside him. He wasn't going to die. Now
he might truly be damnedor worse, he might be Satan himself. Had he become
A doctor. He needed an English doctor. A frightened
Arab goatherd had said there were Englishmen at El Golea. Had he made it to his
goal? He remembered English voices.
He opened his eyes. It was
the room he remembered from his delirium. Slats of sunlight coming through the
shutters burned him. He dragged himself from his bed, stumbling to the window.
He held himself up by the sill and scraped his fist along the slats to shut them.
The wood broke with a crack. Light stabbed through the shattered shutters. He
cried out and groped for the curtains hanging to each side of the embrasure. The
room was cast into dimness. Even in the darkness he could see every detail of
cracked plaster, every dart of a cockroach. Slowly, he sank to the floor, his
back pressed against the plaster. How had he broken those shutters?
Booted feet thudded outside. The wooden door set in a border of blue-figured tiles
creaked open. He was grateful for the huge form that blocked most of the light.
He shielded his eyes. "Light," he croaked in a voice he did not recognize. "No
"Sorry," the figure said in English with a soft reminder
of Yorkshire at the edges. It was the voice from his fever. The door closed. "You
must have had enough of sun."
Now that the room was dim, he could
see the figure for what it was. The face was English through and through, with
slightly protuberant pale blue eyes, a prominent nose and a chin that could have
used a bit more strength. Still the man would be considered handsome. He wore
the uniform of the Seventh Cavalry. How long since he had seen boots? The man
had eaten eggs and dates and toast with orange marmalade for breakfast. Once he
would never have known that. Now the fact that he could smell it frightened him.
He could not let this Englishman know what he was, or the man would never help
him to an English doctor.
"Yes," he croaked, because the man
expected something. The pale blue eyes examined him. He looked down. He was naked.
What did the officer stare at? The scars. Did they reveal him? The marks of the
whip said he had been a slave. But the twin circles all over his body? He hoped
to God no one knew what those meant. Of course, God had nothing to do with him
The officer leaned down and helped him to his bed. He collapsed
against the slatted headboard. "Major Vernon Ware," the man said as he sat on
the side of the bed. "Attached to the English legation at El Golea. We found you
in the streets about a week ago. And you are?"
There might be
a thousand answers to that, none of them good. But this Major wanted something
simple...a name. "Ian George Angleston Rufford." He hadn't thought of himself
by that name in more than two years.
?"Rufford?" The Major peered
at him. "I knocked about London with Rufford Primus. You must be his younger brother."
He held out a long-fingered hand.
Ian did not take it. He was
not sure he dared. "Third son," he said. "My brother is Lord Stanbridge now."
His brother a Viscount. It sounded so...normal. Even if you were poor, your estates
encumbered and your wife a bore...it didn't matter. You knew who you were.
The Major's eyes lit with memory. "Your brother said you stripped to advantage
at Jackson's. Won a pony on you."
Had he ever been the careless
rake who boxed at Jackson's? That man was gone now.
one of the lads bring you some broth," the major said. "You'll be back to beef
and claret soon, but you'd better take it slow. We didn't think you were going
to make it. You...you must have had a hard time of it."
If he knew how hard, the Major would despise him. His feeling of euphoric strength
faded. He was tired. But the goal that had burned in him as he dragged himself
over uncounted miles of sand pushed him to speak. "I need an English doctor."
The Major stood, looming over him and pulled up the linen sheet.
"No English doctor within six hundred miles of here. Rest now. We'll find you
clothes. I kept your belongings."
Ian was puzzled. Belongings?
Nothing had belonged to him for a long time.
"I threw the water
skin away. Something had rotted inside it." Ian started. The water skin held damnation.
"But the little pouch you had hanging around your neck is safe with me."
Ahhh. The diamonds. The diamonds were his way back to England. After a doctor
cured him he would wager at White's and be fitted for a hat at Locke's and canter
about Hyde Park at five of the clock like everyone else with nothing better to
The room swam. The Major saw his weakness and withdrew.
Ian did not have to be like her. And he would not submit himself to a woman
again, ever. Someday the horror in the desert would be only an occasional nightmare.
As his eyes closed, images of London filled him.
patch of ragged grass was a tattered camouflage for the sand beneath. The hiss
of sand being shoveled in on top of the coffin whispered that this was a foreign
grave in a foreign place. With his dirty collar and slurring words, the priest
was still the best the Christian god had in these climes. There was only a wooden
cross to place at her father's grave. The stone would come in three weeks, if
the stonemason did not get distracted by another job or go to stay with his cousins
unexpectedly. That was the way of the world in these parts.
turned away from the grave, still dry-eyed and empty, along with Monsieur L'Bareaux,
several Arabs who had been with her father for years in one capacity or another,
and the disheveled Italian who traded with them for supplies. It was a small enough
group that dispersed into the rising heat of the late morning.
Monsieur handed her back up into the cart and sat heavily beside her. He snapped
the reins over the donkey's back. They plodded toward the blockish outline of
the village. The heat, settling over her mantilla and her cambric dress, was stifling.
She was alone in the world. Her father was gone. Her mother died
giving her life. She was an only child, just as her mother wasunusual in
her mother's native land. There was only her father's sister, Lady Rangle in London.
Beth had met her only half a dozen times. She could not go back to England. She
did not belong there. She belonged here, in Africa, carrying on her father's dream.
M. L'Bareaux held the key, she knew. She had resolved only this morning to accost
him, and yet now she could not speak.
It was Monsieur L'Bareaux
who finally cleared his throat. "Mademoiselle Beth," he began, not looking at
her. "It is perhaps time we talked of you."
She took a breath
and recruited her resources. He had made the first sally. It was now or never.
The only tactic likely to prevail was a hit direct. "I could not agree more, Monsieur.
Once we have seen that Imam in Tunis, I will be able to map our course for Kivala."
M. L'Bareaux pulled at his collar. It wasn't because of the heat.
"I signed the contract with Revelle, petite. He will pay well for excavating
the ancient kasbah at Qued Zem."
"But we have caught the scent
of the Lost City now, I know it!" Her voice rose with her anxiety. She couldn't
lose M. L'Bareaux's support at the outset. "The old man's directions corroborate
the text on that stylus outside Cairo, if one revises Robard's clumsy translation."
M. L'Bareaux glanced down at her. His bushy brows, now drawn
together, had long since stopped seeming fierce. His sympathy made her shrivel.
"I have not the doubts that you are right, petite. But the francs say I
must excavate Qued Zem."
Beth stared straight ahead. She must
not let the fear into her voice. "Well, if it must be Qued Zem, it must. We can
be ready in a fortnight." Perhaps the bluff Frenchman would not hear that little
quaver. If she had to make the final sacrifice, he could not know that she was
There was a long pause. She dared not look at him. Perhaps
he would just acquiesce. Or maybe he was only thinking how to break the bad news.
"You cannot stay here, petite." He said it softly, but
with finality. "It is not proper."
"Did my father care for propriety?"
She shook her head. "If it comes to that, I took more care of him than he of me."
"Who will organize everything, and
who will translate texts for you? You know you read the Coptic very badly and
you have no hieroglyphs at all."
He rubbed his mustaches with
one hand. "I have engaged a foreman. We shall do without a scholar. We are just
digging trinkets, you know."
"But why must you do without? What
"Before, you had him. Whether he was watchful or
no, the men knew that you were to be treated with respect. It would be different
now." She could see he was sorry to have to explain this to her. The donkey plodded
on under the blue dome of sky toward the village wall. They joined the main road,
clogged with the commerce of the desert. Men hunched under lumpy nets of cheese
and baskets of dates. Women carried fowl in crates.
I engaged a chaperone?"
"What woman would trek across the desert
for months at a time?" He shook his head.
"A Bedouin woman, or
a Berber," she answered promptly.
"That would bring neither propriety
"You could give me protection, M. L'Bareaux."
Her voice was small but it was steady.
"Assez," he continued,
"I have made the arrangements for you to have full escort on the next caravan
to Tripoli. Lord Metherton, he knew your father. Already I have written that he
should have a kindness for you, and see that you get back to England safely."
"What difference if I am alone on a caravan or on trek with you?"
One last protest.
"You will go with an Arab family I know, as
their daughter." He spoke slowly, as if she had suddenly become a child. "The
caravan master will see that you are safe."
Well, she wasn't
a child. She was a fully-grown woman who should be able to stay in Africa if she
wished. Night sky and total quiet echoed in her memory. How could one not feel
close to God in the desert? She could feel the Sphinx towering above her in the
unforgiving sun as she ran her hands over the pitted stone of its paws and had
a revelation about it. She had seen many things in the desert that could not be
explained by the rational mind; the old woman who healed others? wounds before
her very eyes, the amulet that burned when you liedshe had seen more than
most women in England saw in a lifetime. How could she give up the freedom, the
excitement, for English drawing rooms? And if she could not even stay in Africa,
she would never see her father's dream realized. She let that thought give her
"There is one answer to both our problems," she heard
herself say. "You get someone to organize and translate, and I stay in North Africa."
He glanced at her with wariness in his eyes as a herd of goats
flowed around their cart. "What are you saying, petite?" She could tell
he did not really want to know.
"I'm asking you to marry me,
M. L'Bareaux." She had known that it would come to this, a final sacrifice needed
to do what she wished, be whom she wished.
The silence stretched.
She must let him consider it. He couldn't be more than forty-two or forty-three.
She was full twenty-four. Did he hesitate because he thought she would be demanding?
"I shouldn't be a charge upon you," she blurted. "It would be a marriage of your
convenience, sir, not mine. I could be as much or as little of a wife as you like."
The arch of Bi'er Taghieri's west wall passed overhead. They plunged into the
stifling village once more, its narrow streets constricting her hopes. M. L'Bareaux's
Adam's apple trekked up and down.
Then his shoulders sagged.
"Mademoiselle Beth, I have sense of the honor you do me." He did not use the familiar
"ma petite." "But you would regret this thing and so would I."
"The difference in age cannot matter." She could not keep desperation out of her
"No. But I do not look for a wife, even one so talented
as you are." He cleared his throat. "I have no liking for...for the ladies."
Oh. Well, that made no difference. It simply meant the marriage would be truly
only convenient. She was about to protest, but he held up a hand. "Call halt,
Mademoiselle Beth." He patted her hand in a fatherly way. "It is for the best.
You belong among your people." He went on with determined cheerfulness. "You have
your father's share of the funerary pieces. They'll bring enough to get you home.
He left your portion in Drummond's bank."
Beth stared ahead,
not at the crowded narrow streets of Bi'er Taghieri, but at the prospect of long
dreary years in drawing rooms, clapping politely when the young misses played
on the pianoforte. Her sentence was handed down by the falling pillar in that
wretched tomb. She was for Tripoli, and an England in which she could not possibly
belong. Her father's dream was dead, just as he was. All that was left was to
walk through her days, missing him and longing for piercing sunshine and black
nights and the smell of jasmine in the morning air.
was late in the English compound. Ian sat with Major Ware in the courtyard under
a pergola covered with vines of star jasmine. The red ends of their cigarillos
glowed in the dark. It had been almost a month since Ian first waked to new life.
The fever was gone, but so were his illusions. He had been eating like the starved
man he was, but no amount of beef and bread could satisfy his cravings. The despair
of knowing exactly what his body wanted beat at him until he couldn't sleep in
his darkened room during daylight hours. The hunger had been growing for weeks
now, until tonight as he sat at dinner with the ambassador, Lord Wembertin, and
his staff, Ian could hear the thrumming of blood in veins, the pump of hearts
around him. He'd startled everyone by knocking over a chair in his haste to be
gone. But he might have done something they'd find far more horrible if he'd stayed.
He couldn't go on like this. Even now he could feel the throb
of Ware's blood in the man's throat. He could see it pulse, even in the dark.
In the pocket of his coat he fingered the small knife they'd given him to pare
his nails. The knife was his hope. He had a plan.
"You must have
put on three stone, Rufford," Ware remarked in the darkness. "Lord, but you were
a scarecrow when you first got here! How long had you been out there?"
Ian wanted no questions. "I'm not sure," he said in a damping tone.
"Well, perhaps not. That new coat fits snug enough, in spite of the foreign tailoring.
Sorry none of us had one to accommodate those shoulders of yours."
"You have been very kind." And he had. Ware had seen to it that he was cared for
until he was strong again. Only Ware's constant vigilance had kept the Arabs at
bay. Ian had to keep the Major from knowing just how strong he was. His fellow
Englishmen would be frightened if they guessed Ian's abilities. Ian was still
guessing and they frightened him.
"Feeling fit enough to be off
for England soon, I dare say. Catching a ship in Algiers?"
go through Tripoli." He kept his voice flat. "You said there is an English doctor
"Yes. But have you still a need of one?"
Ian changed the subject. "I was bound for Tripoli on the way out, you know."
"In the diplomatic service?" The major sat forward.
It was the first information he had volunteered.
I would love to serve under him." Ware's cheroot glowed brighter.
"At one point I thought it just the thing for me. Younger son, family estates
mortgaged to the hilt, you know the way of it. I inherited the family instability."
Ware would understand he meant gambling and horses and women. "Don't know how
I made it through Cambridge. Ran through what my mother had provided for me raking
about town." He gave a bitter laugh.
"Don't try to tip me the
double, Rufford. Rockhampton only takes the best."
Ian felt the
major's blood pumping in his arteries. He achieved a shrug. He must keep talking
to stave off the pain crawling along his veins. "M'father's death stopped the
rake's progress. Henry was pretty well brought to a stand when he inherited. Hadn't
the sense to marry for money. I couldn't be a charge on him. He managed to buy
Charlie a commission. I convinced Rockhampton I'd settled down. I write a fair
hand and my dancing is well enough. All you need to succeed in the diplomatic
Ware raised his brows. "Under Rockhampton? I hardly think..."
But he apparently thought better of pressing Ian. After a moment he said, "But
you never served."
"Barbary pirates off Algiers. Took the ship."
Ian's voice was tight.
Ware nodded, his expression full of surmise.
"How did you escape?"
"A story for another time." Ian's voice
was harsher than he intended.
Ware stubbed out his cigar. "Well,
money won't be a problem, not with the contents of that little leather bag. You
need not serve Whitehall and the diplomats if you dislike it."
"No." He would know better what to do after he put the knife to use tonight.
"I'll leave you. It grows late. Or early. The night has become your time."
Ian's brows drew together. "Not by choice."
"Oh, you'll be riding
to hounds with the Quorn before you know it. A touch of sun poisoning, that?s
all.? Ware rose. "By the by, you'd best travel with a well-armed party. Nasty
doings in the desert. A whole caravan was left for the vultures a hundred miles
to the northwest."
Ian stopped breathing for a moment. "A whole
caravan?' he asked stupidly.
"And there's worse. The animals
were dead, sure, but not desecrated. The men?."
"The men what??
Ian found himself almost whispering.
"Well," Ware hesitated.
"No blood in their bodies. White as your shirt."
"The sand. It
could have sunk into the sand."
"Not without it left some stain.
Natives say they were killed by a demon."
Ian knew who had done
it. No stopping her now. "When is your term of service here up?"
"Mere months." Ware grinned in deprecation. "They're closing El Golea, sending
Wembertin was a fool. Who else would be assigned
a delegation in so remote a desert outpost in the Sahara. Ian nodded. "Good."
"Why?" Ware asked.
"Just stay out of the desert,
man, until you can get home to England."
Ware looked at him strangely
and nodded. Touching his forehead in salute, he ducked out under the jasmine-laden
pergola toward his room.
Ian sat without moving. The hunger gnawed
at him, whispering what was needed to assuage it. At last shutters around the
courtyard no longer seeped light. The compound would seem silent to another. Ian
heard snoring and rats scurrying in the store room, the cat stalking them, the
drip of precious water somewhere. The night was alive and only he could hear it.
He rose, aware of the supple grace his new strength gave him.
Time to try assuaging his dreadful hunger with a substitute Major Ware would find
distasteful but not a certain sign of evil. It was a slim hope, but possible.
He shed his very English coat and returned to a burnoose. Then he slipped out
of the compound into the night, clutching the little knife. The need surged inside
him, bringing a sound from his throat that might be a growl. He had not much time.
Ian sat in his room with every crack sealed against the desert
light. The feeling of life coursing through his veins had driven him to drink
the blood in the water sack and kept him alive across the burning deserts of the
Sahara even as fever raged in his body. Now it surged inside him with unbelievable
His plan had failed. He thought that drinking the blood
of a cow would appease his hunger. He'd cut its artery with the little knife,
sucked the blood. When the cow had fallen on him he'd thrust its two thousand
pounds off with no more concern than it if had been a lap dog.
But it was not his new strength which tore at his mind. He'd vomited up the cow's
blood. And the hunger had surged up in seeming revenge, engulfing him, until he
had done a thing unthinkable. He had sucked the blood of the young cowherd. Worse,
he had not needed the little knife to open the artery in the young man's throat.
Ian almost wailed his guilt, his dread of what he had become. He clapped a hand
over his mouth to prevent the sound, grimacing his revulsion. He had not killed
the boy, it was true. But he might have.
Was he mad? No. That
was the worst of all. This was who he was now. This drive to life was part of
the beast she had made him. He would drink blood to satisfy it. When the hunger
was on him, he would do anything to keep alive. Dear God! He had inherited her
There was only one answer. His resolve warred with the
singing life in his veins.
So he sat in the dark while he battled
the urge to life and gathered his strength. It was afternoon before he could place
the chair. Every fiber of his body fought what he wanted to do. He had to rest
before he could cut the rope net that supported the mattress on his cot. What
he was about to do was wrong. But it was without doubt the lesser of two evils.
He hoped that once he had done it God would forgive him, since he sought only
to redeem the greater sin.
Now, in the heat of the afternoon
when all were resting...now was the time to do it.
"He's gone, poor bastard." Ian heard the Major's voice
dimly. Someone held his wrist. He opened his eyes. Several gasps were quite distinguishable.
The room was at an angle. He straightened his head. Jenks and Evans jerked back.
Even in the dim room he saw them go pale.
Major Ware hung over
him. "Rufford?" he whispered. His voice was uncertain.
neck felt...odd. He turned his head. No, that was better.
the circle, the whispering grew frantic. At the door Arabs made the sign against
evil and scurried away, gabbling. Ian swallowed twice.
you look like that?" he asked the circle. His voice came out a croak.
"You...you had a near thing." The major said. He looked as though he'd seen a
Ian's gaze darted about the room. He was lying on a mattress
on the floor. There was the chair, overturned. A shred of rope still hung from
the beam where they must have cut him down. "I remember." His voice was clearer
now. The soreness in his throat dissolved. Sadness pushed on his chest and made
breathing difficult. "Even the last solace is denied me."
boiled over into rage without notice. He sat bolt upright. The men leapt back
as though he had attacked them. "Go," he yelled. "Get out of here! What are you
They disappeared as fog evaporates under the blast
of the sun. Only Ware stayed. Ian could see the questions burning inside him,
questions so outrageous they could not be asked. "You, too, Ware," he growled,
sinking back onto the mattress. "You can do no good here."
rose, uncertainty mirrored clearly in his face. He was considering whether he
should leave a man who had just committed suicide to his own devices, or whether
he was a fool for not running from the room screaming. Personally, Ian recommended
"What happened to you out there, man?" Ware asked
Rufford stared at him for a long moment. He had never
asked about the slavery, about the marks on Ian?s body, even about what was in
the water skin, though speculation on all those topics was rampant throughout
the delegation. Ian could always hear the whispers. As payment for that forbearance,
the man deserved an answer. "I became my worst enemy, friend; my very own nightmare."
He closed his eyes. "Now go, for your own good, go."
to the door. "The men will tell Wembertin," he said, not looking back.
"He won't believe them. And he won't want the scandal. I'll be gone tomorrow."
Ware nodded. "I'll tell him," he said as he closed the door.