by Gary Clifton
“Keep up, swine,” the horseman snarled. “Or you'll drag behind my mount again.”
Karima willed herself through the shifting sand beside the huge rider's horse. She was marching near the end of a column moving slowly across desert. Her captor had finally learned she would stagger along without the roughhewn rope circling her neck. It had nearly strangled her when she had fallen in exhaustion. Where else could she go?
Disaster had destroyed her village five days earlier... or was it six? The intruders had burned her village in the middle of the night, slaughtering her entire family and all other inhabitants, except five young females the raiders had taken as captives. The warrior who was forcing her to labor along behind had personally slain her father, mother, and brother.
Exhausted, terrified, Karima struggled not to consider her fate. She clutched her robe around her to attempt relief from the incessant, blazing wind and blowing sand. Tortured by thirst, unfed for two days, she had been allowed a only few swallows of water at daybreak.
“Water, master, in God's name.” Her throat was so swollen and raw she could barely speak.
“We'll stop at an oasis at midday, pig. Whine again and you'll get no water today.”
She doubled her resolve to survive and struggled along, her neck chafed and tender from the times she'd fallen and been dragged. She carried only a simple goatskin bag that hung around her neck. In it was a treasure she had nurtured for years.
Karima had always been an obedient, intelligent girl, faithful to the temple, loving of her family. At 14, she had learned her father was arranging to barter her away to a husband. She'd been told she would bring at least two horses or perhaps even a camel. Then the monsters struck.
“Master... I... uh, enjoyed it when you had your way with me last night. Would the gods favor taking me into your household? I'll do anything to please.”
The man looked down at her, something he had not done all morning. “You are a handsome wench. But gold is far more valuable than an ignorant slave.”
Karima gambled that the man's lust would outweigh his wits. She leaned closer and placed a hand on his bare knee. “Master,” she said, “I crave contact with your flesh and if I might rest my hand there, this journey becomes far easier... especially in the service of a fierce, handsome conqueror like yourself.” He was fat, ugly, and smelled of camel droppings, but she managed the words.
He studied her at length. “Yes, swine, use my horse and me for aid. You'll retain more value.”
As she walked beside him, she allowed her robe to open slightly at the chest, a sight not unnoticed by the man.
Again, another desperate ploy. “Great master, can you tell this humble slave your name, please? I want to carry it on my heart in the event I die walking in this sand.”
Again, he studied her dusty figure tottering along.
“My name is Khatef, swine.” He reached down, grabbed her right wrist and effortlessly pulled her up behind him. “What is in that bag you carry?”
“Only a small blanket master, for cold nights. If I could lie close to you, I would not need it.”
Making certain she pressed her youthful body against him, she rode in silence for over an hour.
Suddenly, Khatef reined the horse off to the north. He and his comrades exchanged goodbye salutes and shortly, Karima was alone with her captive beyond the dunes.
They came upon a spring with two scraggly palm trees and a patch of vegetation to provide sparse grass for the horse. Khatef gave her a full gourd of water and followed with a chunk of stale bread.
“May the gods thank your mercy, master.” She devoured the bread. “If the master pleases, we could use my blanket” — she tapped her goatskin bag — “for whatever need you might have for me. As relief against the hot sand or a cover from the sun.”
He tossed his scimitar onto the sand. “Give me the bag. I believe I'll use your rag as cover from the sun. What matter if the hot sand burns your back?”
“It is very precious to me, master.” She hesitated, then handed it over.
Eager to get on with his intentions, he yanked open the drawstring at the mouth of the bag.
The king cobra's strike caught him in the throat at the base of his beard. Terrified and stricken, he grasped at his neck.
Karima picked up the scimitar and swung wildly. Small and lacking in strength, she only managed to strike halfway through the back of his neck, but it was enough. He fell, gurgling blood into the sand, unable to voice a word.
Karima spread the bag and the cobra, uncomfortable on the hot sand, crawled back inside. She'd taught the serpent this maneuver after the village elder had given it to her years earlier.
Retaining the scimitar and Khatef's water tote, her bag over her shoulder, she cautiously approached the horse. To her good fortune, the horse was familiar enough with her after five days and did not shy.
She clambered up on the stallion's back and turned him away from the oasis, continuing the path directly away from Khatef's companions.
Karima looked back. “Burn in hell for my friends and family, swine.”
Copyright © 2016 by Gary Clifton