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Rebecca Bryn - Where Hope Dares

whd new book cover 4 500px copy   £1.99/$2.99     Get it at    http://getbook.at/WhereHopeDares

Readers' Favourite 5-star review, voted into the top 50 Read Freely Indie books of 2015.

Caught between the Great Flood and the Second Coming, Where Hope Dares is a story of courage, faith and mankind's indomitable hope. 'If it can be imagined, it can  be achieved. Man will go where hope dares.'

Set loosely in the High Atlas Mountains, in a time of religious, political and social upheaval, two isolated communities collide with devastating results. Kiya, a healer, is kidnapped to fulfil an ancient prophecy and taken over the mountains to a brutal pagan high priest. Raphel, her storyteller husband, sets out on a thousand-mile journey to bring her home with only hope and a headful of stories to aid him. They look to Abe, an enigmatic peddler for help but he has a secret agenda decreed by a long-dead pope. They find help where they least expect it, but who can they trust - friend of foe?

Available at http://getbook.at/WhereHopeDares, the goddess willing.

 

    

 

 See all reviews for Where Hope Dares at http://getbook.at/WhereHopeDares

If there is no peace between man, and animals, and the land, there will be no fertility and the Oromo will cease to exist. If there is peace between man, and animals, and the land, Waqqa who lives in the sky will send rain and great abundance - Oromo proverb.

Chapter One

 

Abe stroked his mule’s neck: the beast threw up his head, the white of his eye flashing, a sure sign something had spooked him. ‘Hold up, Moses. Steady, boy.’

Moses’s nostrils expanded and quivered, blowing soft, nervous breath across the silver hairs on his master’s forearm: his long ears went back, flat to his mane.

‘Yes, I smell it too.’ He pushed the wide, floppy brim of his hat back from his eyes, with the thumb of the hand that held his staff, and hauled the reluctant mule forward. A damp smell of burning clung to the air.

The track wound along the bottom of the narrow gorge, among sparse trees at the river’s edge. Where were the people of the village, the children? He rounded a bend in the trail and stopped, heart in mouth. The house before him lay in ruins, its walls blackened and crumbling, smoke still wisping from the windows. The body of a young woman lay at the foot of a tree. She was curled on her side, the handle of a knife protruding from her belly. He drew closer, the breeze lifting the sickly-sweet smell of death into the air. She’d been dead a day, maybe more.

He tied Moses to a branch and bent to make the sign of the cross on her forehead. ‘May God in his mercy forgive your sins.’

The mule let out a strangled squeal, wild eyed and terrified. Cold fingers crept up his spine as his eyes were drawn inexorably where Moses looked, up into the tree to which he’d tethered the mule. Above them was a child, a small girl: her dress, once a pale blue, was dark with blood, her black curls framed her face in matted locks, her head hung forward on her chest and her thin arms were outstretched. Through her hands, wooden spikes pinned her to the tree’s branches and through her heart was a wooden stake; a cruel parody of Christ’s crucifixion.

Holy Mary…’ His staff clattered to the stony ground and his fingers reached for the crucifix worn beneath his shirt. He swallowed bile and forced himself to look at her, to see the dark stain caking the insides of her legs, and the blood that had run from her wounds: she’d been raped, and had been alive when they’d hung her from this tree. His breath came in harsh sobs and he raised his eyes to the heavens, fists clenched. ‘My God, why? Strike me! The fault is mine not theirs.’

Stumbling away, blind with tears, he puked his guts in the road. He wiped a sleeve across his eyes and mouth, untied Moses and hobbled him, letting him graze a short distance away, then he climbed the tree to take down the dead child. Cradling her in his arms, he laid the little girl at the woman’s side. He remembered them from a previous visit, a year or more ago. They were mother and daughter, and it was clear from the woman’s position, from the tracks of crusted tears across her cheeks, that she’d taken her own life.

He tore his hat from his head and dropped it beside him, bowing his head. God’s reasons weren’t for him to question. He’d been spared… God’s will… these deaths were shown to him for a reason and all would be made clear with the coming of the Messiah. He struggled to remember the words for the dead, his voice barely able to speak them. ‘O Heavenly King, Comforter, Spirit of Truth, Who art everywhere present and fillest all things, Treasury of good things, and Giver of life: come and abide in us, and cleanse us from every sin, and save our souls.’ He crossed himself again, drawing some comfort from the action and the words. He had interceded on their behalf and God would save their immortal souls.

He grasped his hat and staff, rubbed his head behind one ear distractedly, and turned a full circle to take in the scene around him. Other dwellings lay blackened and in ruins. The remains of a sheep or goat, roasted whole and picked clean, showed the attackers had feasted well before they left. They’d been confident enough in their strength not to worry about being caught unawares, or they were confident in the peaceful nature of these defenceless people south of the mountains.

‘Who’s done this, Moses? The Northmen?’ But the Northmen lived across the High Atlas, far to the north and were fully occupied defending their own borders. They shouldn’t be here… at the very least, the mountain passes should have stopped them. ‘But why would they risk such a hazardous journey, Moses? Could they have found out? This child… did they think she was the one? Is that why they killed her?’

The voice of reason answered him. If they know about the child, they’d know it would be a boy they’re looking for, Brother Abraham.

A boy… yes. Had the Northmen discovered something the brethren knew nothing of? Was this a sign? He was being paranoid: crucifixions had happened in Morocco in the past. He pushed back straggling silver hair, captured it beneath his hat, and struggled to make sense of the scene.

Old age had made him complacent, content to watch the amusing power struggle between the Northmen’s two high priests. Their in-fighting had kept their minds occupied, and their eyes away from their southern border, and that suited the brethren very well. He had a shrewd idea which of them was at the root of this present evil: he should have killed him when he had the chance. Whichever way he looked at it he’d failed and, if his cover had been discovered, their spies could be anywhere. They could be watching him even now.

He trudged further into the village, fearing what he’d find. All the houses were burned and the charred bodies inside them showed no sign of a fight. They’d been attacked at night, killed in their beds, apart from the one woman who’d killed herself with her own kitchen knife, and the one child hung up as a macabre warning.

A warning… He wasn’t paranoid; the Northmen were showing him they knew the brethren’s secret purpose, taunting him.

He searched the ground for tracks but couldn’t make sense of them. M’Gouna, the small community in the Valley of the Roses, was further to the south-west. If the Northmen were going that way, they had a head start and would be there long before he could warn the town or any of the isolated settlements on the way. The dusty streets of M’Gouna, more than a day’s travel away, lay before him as if in a dream, covered with the red of blood not roses. 

His heart thumped wildly as God’s message became clear. ‘Guddaa Mana! Sweet Jesus… This could have been Jalene and Kiya.’ He crossed himself. M’Gouna and the villages in that direction were beyond his aid but he could reach Guddaa Mana, the remote upland village he’d left that morning: if he hurried, he could be there before nightfall. It lay to the east, back the way he’d come. He hadn’t passed the attackers on the road so, unless they’d taken a shorter route over the mountainous terrain, he should reach Kiya’s village in time. Kiya was like a daughter to him: she reminded him of his Marika.

‘We’re heading back to Guddaa Mana. We have to warn them the Northmen are on the loose, Moses. The brethren should send ships to harry Deep Haven, and the sooner the better.’

The voice of reason agreed with him but pointed out that it wasn’t a thing that could be done quickly. Men and ships would have to be assembled, recalled, repaired and provisioned, the Mediterranean crossed, and the submerged rocks that peppered the sea off the West African coast negotiated safely.

He huffed his impatience. ‘The balance of power must be restored.’ He unhobbled the mule and tugged on his rope. ‘Come on, you stubborn brute. Hurry, if you don’t want us both to be roasted alive.’ The overladen mule protested noisily, but followed him as he hurried back along the track.

A mile further and he knew he wouldn’t make it before dark, on foot. He was old, even for a Keeper, older than any of his friends at Guddaa Mana could guess, and the road to their village was hard and tortuous as it snaked back and forth like a serpent through the twisting gorge and on high into the barren mountains.

He stroked his wispy beard and sucked in his cheeks. If he left the track once clear of the gorge, and headed directly for higher ground, he could take a short cut. It would be harder, steeper going but would shave miles off his journey: there was no time to worry about being seen above the tree line and, if he dumped his packs, he could ride where it wasn’t too steep for Moses to carry him.

The sheer walls of the gorge dropped away as the road climbed. He transferred essential supplies to his backpack and unloaded Moses. He hid his remaining worldly goods, including his only change of clothes which were unadventurously identical to the ones he was wearing, beneath scrubby undergrowth. Hauling the mule closer to a rocky outcrop, he climbed onto the animal’s narrow back and urged him up the rock-strewn hillside.

Riding Moses, and walking where it was steep, he climbed ever upwards, crossing and re-crossing the easier route, dangerously exposed on the bare hillside but not daring to slow his pace. At last, he crested the rise: Guddaa Mana lay huddled in the valley and on the dry slopes below him, its warm, square adobe buildings blending with the red earth from which they were built. His heart rose at the sight: one day, God willing, he would come here and never leave again. A ribbon of green followed the river in the valley bottom and beckoned him onwards: water and shade and soft green grass and, best of all, good friends.

He dismounted and rubbed sweat from the back of his neck. ‘No sign of the Northmen yet, Moses. Come on. Last push.’ He hung on to the mule’s short mane as he slithered and stumbled down the steep scree, following a dry creek formed by winter run-off and sending loose rocks skittering down the hillside ahead of them.

A figure saw him coming and waved: judging by the bent back, and the shock of white beard against dark skin, it was Moti, an Abbaa Bokku, a village elder. He staggered closer, breaking into a shambling run. ‘Moti! Gather the people! Northmen!’

‘Abe. Slow down, my old friend. Take a breath. What’s happened?’ Moti’s brown wizened face peered up at him. ‘Come, sit down.’

‘No time.’ He drew breath in deep gasps, his legs buckled and he clung to the mule’s halter. ‘Northmen attacked… next village… killed everyone.’

Moti’s dark-brown eyes widened. ‘Northmen… what Northmen?’

He waved a thin arm to the white-clad peaks, only now realising how ignorant, helpless and defenceless the work of the brethren had left these people. ‘From across the mountains.’

‘Why? Why would anyone do this?’

‘We must get everyone to safety, now. The cavern… Tell them to leave everything except essentials… blankets and food… and water. Provision it for several days… bring animals… goats… for meat and milk. Goats will squeeze through the entrance.’

Moti stared at him, mouth open, showing worn teeth green from chewing khat. ‘Goats?’

How could this gentle, peaceful man envisage the savagery of the Northmen’s raiding party? That they would come back to ruins, if they lived to return. He grabbed the front of Moti’s striped robe with a fisted hand, using strength he didn’t know he had, and almost lifted the smaller man from his feet. ‘Now, Moti, unless you want your wife and daughter raped and slaughtered, and your sons butchered. And tell them when they go to the cavern, step only on the rocks. Leave no tracks. I don’t know what’s brought the Northmen here but, if they find us, they’ll kill us.’

***

Kiya froze: it had barely been a noise. An elusive sound; a twig breaking underfoot, the quiet brushing of an animal against the undergrowth. Antelope? It would be a delicacy she could send the older boys out to retrieve for her. She melted into the thicket, her slight form, nut-brown skin and russet travelling clothes blending with her surroundings. Crouched down to wait, knife at the ready, she balanced on the balls of her feet and slowed her breathing, mouth slightly open.

She waited, still as a breezeless day, until fire cramped her muscles. The air brought the scents of rotting leaves underfoot, of wild boar, of dust, now wind-dry off the exposed and broken mountain slopes. The whisper of sound came again and a Screwhorn antelope crossed the path in front of her, a calf at foot. She lowered her knife: to kill a suckling mother left the calf to die, too, and was an affront to Waqqa who lived in the sky.

Crossing the steep-sided narrow ravine, she picked her way over the bones of the ancient bridge thanking Waqqa for the gift of water in this arid land, as she did each time she crossed the tumbling river. The track wound upwards through the wooded cleft in the hills and she strode easily, her bag swinging at her side. She paused at the top of the rise and let her eyes feast on the view across the lands of legend to the south where, it was told, lay Boorana, the homeland of the Oromo peoples.

Beyond the harsh rolling mountains to the west, towards the sea her people had never seen, the sun sank in a lowering sky, edging the clouds with fire and painting the first snow of the waning year orange on the summits. Snow meant spring-melt, and spring-melt meant water for crops and good grazing for cattle in the narrow strips of pasture that bordered the river. The tallest peaks were white even in summer, and Abe said there were rivers of ice in the higher passes. She hoped Abe would be there when she got home, that she hadn’t missed his visit and his stories of distant lands and strange people.

Her eyes were drawn south again, across a sparse country of low hills, dotted with stunted cork oaks and juniper: stories said desert lay out there beyond the feet of the mountains, vast and uncrossable. No-one ventured that way now, and from that direction none had come for many generations.

A slight wind lifted her finely-braided hair from the nape of her neck, bringing with it the smell of smoke. She breathed in the smell: wood smoke? Ahead of her lay Guddaa Mana, a straggle of ancient mud-brick dwellings and newer mud and thatched homes that nestled in the side of the hill. Home. She raised her head, scenting also the damp in the air: Waqqa had sent rain.

She lengthened her stride, eager to be home before dark: she’d been away too long and she missed Raphel and Jalene. She smiled. Her baby daughter had her dark, almost black eyes, but not her dark Oromo skin. Jalene favoured Raphel more: not only did she have his curly black hair, an inheritance from their Oromo ancestors, but also his paler skin, finer features and deep-set eyes that spoke of their Berber heritage.

Jalene’s name meant we loved. She longed to hold her, longed to lie with Raphel after nights away. She sighed, tiring now after three days walking: her own needs must wait. She brought herbs she couldn’t find close to home, including fresh rosemary for her sister, Genet, also blessed by the goddess and almost due with her first child.

The track turned east again. The smell of smoke was stronger now: odd that she could smell it so far from home. Someone in the woods? Abe, maybe, if she’d missed his visit and he’d left the village already? She trod with greater care, uncertain why she felt wary, aware of every rustle as the light failed, jumping at every shadowy wing-beat of birds flying in to roost. Smoke wreathed above the orchard ahead and, with it, came the sound of voices shouting, screaming… the crackling of flames. She broke into a run. ‘No, please, goddess, no.’

*

If the stone fall upon the egg, alas for the egg. If the egg fall upon the stone, alas for the egg - Greek proverb.

Chapter Two

Abe hurried down the hillside from the cavern, moving from rock to rock as fast as his tired legs would carry him ‘They’re burning the village!’

Ahead of him, Moti’s slight figure was bent in concentration, his robe billowing in the breeze, his arms held out to balance his flight. ‘Waqqa help us. Temara and Eba are still there.’

He pushed his legs faster, willing his feet to safe footholds. ‘Raphel stayed behind, too, to help Genet and her mother. Jalene…’ Please God, little Jalene was safe. They’d got most of the women and children to safety, carrying what provisions they could. He’d come too late to save everyone.

Many of the houses were alight. Northmen strode from home to home with torches, the whump of thatch catching light filled the air. Smoke choked him and made his eyes run, swallowing the huge Northmen forms. Bodies lay prone on the ground. He cast around him desperately. Where were Raphel, Kiya and Jalene? Where were Genet and her mother?

A tall figure lunged at him and he swung his staff at the man’s head with every last bit of his strength. The bigger man dodged to one side to avoid him and connected with an axe wielded by Tacfin, one of Moti’s sons: the huge figure slumped to the ground and Tacfin engaged another Northman. He thanked God and ran towards Genet’s burning house just as Raphel appeared carrying Jalene. He yelled to Raphel. ‘Where’s Kiya?’

Raphel ran towards him. ‘She hasn’t come back yet.’

‘She’s safe, then.’ He had to believe that. He couldn’t lose her, too. ‘Run, Raphel… get Jalene to safety. I’ll find Genet.’

Raphel clutched Jalene to his chest. ‘She and her mother ran to the woods. Go after them, Abe.’

He nodded but Moti gripped his arm, and pointed to a young woman carrying a little boy. A Northman had her by the throat.

Moti’s face contorted. ‘Temara… they’ve got Temara!’ The old man moved to help his daughter and grandson. ‘Temara… Eba…’

Temara must have heard Moti. She let go of the child, who ran towards them. Raphel grabbed Moti’s shoulder with one hand and thrust Jalene into the elder’s arms. ‘Moti, take Jalene and Eba. I’ll help Temara.’ Raphel drew his knife. ‘Go! You too, Abe.’

He banged the tip of his staff onto the hard ground in frustration. ‘God be with you, Raphel.’ He hurried to the shelter of the trees and turned, impotent in his anger, but unable to leave the scene of carnage. ‘The devil curse old age.’

Moti had disappeared behind rocks on the hillside: at least he wouldn’t witness what was happening to his daughter. Temara was on the ground, her legs kicking, a Northman kneeling between her thighs and holding her down. His heart thudded as Raphel ran at the Northman and raised his knife to stab at her attacker’s neck. A huge fair-haired Northman hefted a spear and struck Raphel, pinning him to the ground, and then swung a mace, bringing it down on the young man’s chest. Raphel lay still.

His heart almost stopped. ‘Dear God…’

Temara’s scream made his blood run cold. They were savages… savages.

Only God could help Raphel and Temara now. He hadn’t the strength to fight Northmen, any more than Raphel had had, and nothing would be gained by him getting himself killed. He could help Kiya’s sister and mother. He melted into the trees and turned in the direction of the cavern in search of Genet.

***

Kiya stopped, breathless and heart pounding, at the edge of the trees that bordered the cow pastures of Guddaa Mana. Her stomach churned and she clutched at a branch to stop herself falling. Across the pasture, flames silhouetted dark figures. A lighted torch arced onto thatch and the air whumped as it caught light. Smoke billowed, flames roared as they caught, and a mule brayed in terror: almost all the thatched roofs were alight.

She tried to make sense of the chaos. A woman, it had to be Temara, had been dragged from her home screaming and thrown to the ground by a figure that dwarfed her. Another, smaller figure, running to Temara’s aid had been struck down and lay still. No-one else ran to help. Why did no-one help them?

The wind blew a brief hole in the smoke: dark shapes littered the ground.

‘Sweet Goddess…’ The acrid stench of burned flesh made her gag. She touched her cäle, her string of coloured beads, instinctively. ‘Atete, protect us.’ Dodging from cow to cow to hide her approach, and driving them before her, she ran across the pasture.

Temara screamed again, her legs kicking out as a large man held her down. Another man, huge beyond her imagining, hauled at her attacker. ‘Get off her. This one’s mine. I’m The Chosen.’

The scream cut short, and the struggle stilled. The Chosen held his smaller comrade by the throat. ‘I told you…Velik’s orders were to bring back prisoners, not kill them all, you stupid bastard.’ A blade shone redly and flashed upwards into the man’s belly: his body hit the dirt. ‘And that’s for letting that woman gut herself, yesterday.’

She shrank behind a stone wall, shaking uncontrollably. They couldn’t all be dead. Please, Goddess, they weren’t all dead. Tears wet her cheeks; bile rose into her throat. Raphel, Jalene, Genet, Mother.

She sank to her knees and vomited. Wiping her mouth with the back of her hand, she forced her legs to move. She could do nothing here. Keeping low, she followed the wall and hedge-lines that skirted the village to the south; reaching higher ground, she searched for the rock formation that marked the track that led to the cavern, an ancient place of storage and safety in the stories Raphel told. The familiar rock morphed out of the dusk and she took a step towards it. A small stone plinked onto the rock beside her and skittered on down the hillside. She froze, and then slowly turned and looked up. A giant of a man loomed above her.

Every fibre of her body yelled run, every instinct yelled scream,but her legs wouldn’t obey her.He wasn’t of her people, for they were gentle, slender of build and had brown skins, black hair and eyes like night. This man was white, like Abe, but huge and broad with legs and arms like tree trunks, and murderous eyes: she’d heard of such people in stories.

She threw down her bag, raised her knife and faced the man, her scream dying in her throat. Her body swayed as she tried to anticipate his next move. With speed that belied his size, he leapt on her, grabbed her wrist, twisted the knife from her fingers and bore her to the ground. She kicked at his legs, scratched his face with her free hand, and sank her teeth into his wrist.

He gripped both her arms and then crushed her to his chest. ‘If I wanted you dead, you’d be dead.’

She could hardly breathe. ‘Let… me… go.’

‘Stop trying to gouge my eyes out.’

She let her limbs go limp and he relaxed his grip. Twisting out of his arms, she lunged for her knife but he kicked aside her hand. Her blade rattled against stone as it bounced over and over down the hillside.

She cradled her hand, wincing, sure he’d broken some of her fingers, and glared at him. His skin might be white like Abe’s but there the resemblance ended. His pale blue eyes showed no hint of compassion: his light yellow hair was long, lank and drawn back in a loose knot. He stood head and shoulders above her, and was as broad as two men and muscular. His jerkin and trousers were made of soft tan leather, dark with still-wet blood, but supple as if chewed soft for many months: a labour of love for any woman. His boots were worn and scuffed, suggesting he’d travelled far, and at his side and shoulders hung an armoury of weapons. She steeled herself to look back into his eyes. ‘What do you want from me?’

‘My name is Alaric, The Chosen.’ He spoke as if this should mean something to her.

She kept her face impassive and raised her chin. ‘And I am Kiya, The Herbalist.’ She wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of knowing he’d destroyed everything and everyone she cared about.

He leaned closer, making her gag: he stank of smoke, blood, guts and burning. ‘Where are the girls and women?’

Her heart thudded. Some had escaped? ‘You’ve killed them all.’

‘Grey-beards, milk-chins and withered wombs. They’re no use to me.’ He smiled, showing yellow teeth. ‘And they couldn’t run fast enough. I came for the young women. Pretty women. Dark-eyed girls and women. Take me to them.’

‘Never.’

‘So there are girls and women?’

She could barely think. ‘We were a small village. We weren’t expecting to be attacked. I doubt any escaped.’

‘My men will search when it’s light.’ He gripped her arm. ‘If you’re the only one left, that makes my task easier. It’s you who are The Gift. You’ll come with me.’

***

Abe sank to the ground. ‘Genet?’

Genet tried to speak and failed. Her face was screwed in pain.

Her mother rubbed Genet’s back. ‘She’s in labour.’

He glanced around quickly. Across the paddock, flames still rose high above roofs and Northmen bellowed like oxen at a bulling cow. They’d gut her like a fish. ‘It isn’t safe here. We have to try to get you both to the cavern.’

Genet shook her head, biting her lip against crying out. ‘Too… late…’

Marika’s face swum before him. If he could have taken her pain, died in her place, he’d have willingly done so. ‘Then we must find somewhere you can hide.’ He put a hand under one of Genet’s arms and motioned her mother to do the same. ‘There’s a hollow oak… this way. It’s the only place I know.’

Even so short a distance was a struggle. Genet’s legs wouldn’t hold her weight, and he hadn’t the strength to carry her. Even if Moses had been near enough, he doubted he could have lifted her onto his back. The old oak had split wide open, its centre long rotted away, and it reeked as if animals used it for a den. He removed his cloak, laid it on the ground, and then lowered Genet onto it.

Genet let out a whimper and her mother picked up a stick and gave it to her to bite on. She held her daughter’s hand. ‘You mustn’t cry out, Genet.’

Genet nodded and removed the stick. ‘Where… Kiya?’

He shook his head. ‘Raphel said she isn’t back yet. I hope she stays away. She’s safer out there.’

Genet nodded again and groaned, biting down on the stick and breathing sharp, shallow breaths. Her mother motioned him away. There wasn’t room inside the tree for three and he was in the way. And this was women’s work. ‘I’ll wait outside… keep guard.’

Genet’s mother shook her head. ‘We’ll be fine. If anyone comes this way you’ll only draw attention to us. Get to the cavern and make sure Jalene and Raphel are safe.’

‘Moti took Jalene and Eba. They should be at the cavern.’ Genet and her mother would find out about Raphel and Temara all too soon. They had enough to worry about. ‘Stay here. I’ll come back if I can, when it’s safe for you to move.’

He followed the trees to the nearest point to the cavern and then began the climb up the rocky hillside, moving slowly and carefully from rock outcrop to rock outcrop and making sure he kept out of sight of the brutes in the village. God willing, Moti had made it to the cavern with Jalene, but how was he going to tell Kiya about Raphel?

***

Abe slumped against the cavern wall and closed his eyes as exhaustion claimed him. He roused from an uneasy dream, his heart pounding: his eyelids had drooped, but his candle hadn’t burned below the mark so he must have only have dozed for seconds. He shivered as the dream faded, and glanced around him: so many familiar faces were missing. In the centre of the cavern, a tallow lamp flared with a yellow flame, picking out the frightened faces of women, children and old men. On the walls were strange drawings, and symbols written by a long-forgotten people in a hand few could now read: black, greasy smoke from the lamp drifted upwards to a ceiling that lay in deep shadow.

It was cold, for they daren’t light a fire even though the caverns were deep. Used for generations as a place of storage, the straight-hewn passages, tumbled now, and long-since blocked by roof falls, had rooms hidden far from the outside world. Its original use was also long-forgotten by the people who now inhabited this village.

A nanny goat bleated softly at the edge of the circle of light. As Moti had observed, food travelled best on its own legs and the goats’ tracks had helped obscure their own. At least, the children had milk and, carefully meted out, the cave was provisioned for several days.

Anxious faces surrounded him in the flickering light, the children too afraid to sleep. Their desperate scramble to safety would stay with them forever and, if they survived the night, pass into story. He shook his head; they were so few.

Moti put a wrinkled brown hand on his wrinkled blue-veined pale one. ‘But for you, Abe, none of us would have survived. You came back to warn us, and for that I thank you.’

‘You know you’re like family to me. I was on my way down to M’Gouna. I’m long overdue there and I have trade with them... cloth from Saanqaa Riqicha.’ He was making excuses, but he needed to explain, not that he could tell them the truth of why he was here. They knew him only as an itinerant peddler of wares. ‘I’ve a long road over the mountains before winter, if I’m to get home this year. If I’d been paying proper attention… seen the signs sooner… If I’d come faster…’

Moti sighed. ‘You’re an old man, Abe. Your legs, not your heart, betrayed you. You’re feeling bad that you didn’t stay in the village to defend our homes? I, too, but that would have put my sons in danger, looking out for me. A man has to know when to leave the fight to others.’ Moti fell silent, doubtless thinking of Temara and his sons.

He didn’t know for sure what had happened to Temara, though he could guess. ‘I wish none of them had stayed to fight. There may be honour in such a death but your village needs your young men.’

‘Some may yet make it here, Abe.’ Moti looked at him anxiously. ‘The crack in the mountain is surely too narrow for men of that girth?’

Moti voiced the concern of all. He hurried to reassure him. ‘If, come daylight, these men from the north find the entrance… I almost got stuck getting in, Moti. Even your own people have to squeeze through. We’re safe as long as we do nothing to alert them to our presence.’

‘Our people knew to tread only on stones and leave no tracks, but in the haste…’

‘The passage is narrow. If they can squeeze through the entrance, they’ll have do it on their bellies and we can pick them off one by one, Moti.’

‘What with? They can pick us off one by one. We have no weapons.’

‘You have knives and rocks. They must be your weapons.’

Moti nodded, his expression bleak. ‘What manner of man does this, Abe? Who are these people?’

How much could he tell his old friend? He couldn’t bring himself to tell him what the Northmen had done to Temara. How Raphel had fallen defending her. ‘They’re not one race, any more than your people are, Moti. They came from the northern countries into Africa, looking for a home much as your people did but, where the Oromo came in peace and co-existed with the Berber, the Northmen came to conquer. They drove the native Berbers into the mountains and defend their borders ruthlessly. They live by different rules, worship a pagan god.’

‘Theirs must a savage god.’

‘A god of war… This is my fault, Moti. I… led them here.’

‘That may be, but you didn’t force them to kill. You’ve never harmed our people. The choice was theirs to make.’

‘Their high priest is brutal. I fear it’s the only choice they could make.’

‘A man has it in his power to change, whatever the name of his god.’

‘You think so? You’re too forgiving for this world, Moti. Your wisdom shames me. I feel… lost. I can no longer see where God’s path leads me.’

Moti shot him a hard glance. ‘I didn’t say I forgave them, Abe. And if the road ahead is unclear, you must follow your heart. Only Waqqa knows how these people fit into his plan for us. If this is Waqqa’s will…’

The children grew restless: tired now beyond sleep, they sat wrapped in kidskins on grass mats or on the laps of the women. One small boy looked up wide-eyed. ‘Dur durii, Moti.’

‘A story, Eba?’

At least Moti still had Eba, and Jalene was here: he had a soft spot for Jalene as he’d been staying with Raphel and Kiya the night she’d been born. His uneasy dream came back to him in a rush: a newborn baby boy nailed to a wooden cross. And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.

Suppose Genet gave birth to a boy? He’d failed these people and his God. After all his years of service to his redeemer, he’d failed Him when it counted most. He should have done more to protect her and her child. The last time he’d interfered in the work of women he’d lived to regret it. Every day, he regretted it.

‘Dur durii, Moti.’

Moti smoothed his white beard and cleared his throat. ‘Raphel tells our stories better, but I’ll do my best. You must be still and silent for I shall speak quietly.’ His bright, dark eyes, set deep between the furrows of his brow and the crinkles above his rounded cheeks, took on a faraway look: his gnarled hands moved as if to illustrate the story. ‘When the world was young, and the Horn of Africa was a land of peace and plenty, Waqqa, the god in the sky who made the world, sent rain to grow the sacred coffee beans and the grass that feeds the animals. He sent fertility to the earth. The land of Boorana was blessed and the Oromo rocked the cradle of humanity.’

Rapt faces watched every gesture. He’d heard the legend many times, but Moti’s Oromo people had no tradition of a written language and stories were eagerly listened to: like the children, he never tired of it. Moti was rare among his people in being able to read: a skill handed down through the generations only to the village’s keepers of trade records. His eye caught the enigmatic symbols on the wall, written not in Berber Latin but in English. He frowned. Had the people who’d written them all those years ago been the original teachers?

Moti’s hand moved, palm-downwards, describing a vast distance. ‘And the children of humanity spread, far beyond Boorana to every land, and the people settled and grew apart from one another. The hand that rocked the cradle no longer knew her children. And the children no longer knew their mother. But man prospered and Waqqa blessed him. But man who has much, wants more, and he forgot Waqqa who blessed nagaa Boorana, the peace of Boorana, and he forgot the sacred places of the Oromo, and the ceremonies and the language of the Oromo.’

Moti’s face grew sombre. He held up his hands, fingers spread. ‘Many tens of generations pass, father to son, and Waqqa is known by many names. By some he is called Allah, by some Buddha, and by some Brahman. To some he is Jehova, or Adonai, or HaShem.’ Moti glanced at him, a smile playing briefly on his lips. ‘To some he is called only God and has no name.’

He nodded, acknowledging Moti’s jibe. For years he’d preached to these people about his god. They’d taken on some of his beliefs but, he suspected, only those that mirrored their ancient faith in Waqqa. Sometimes, he wondered if it were they who were converting him.

‘The Abyssinian king, Menelik, forced the Oromo to become his subjects, and later still our borders straddled the two great countries of Ethiopia and Kenya, but the leaders of these countries sought to suppress our culture and our religion, our language and even our names. But…’ Moti wagged a cautionary finger. ‘It is said that to rise early will not help escape God.’

Moti’s brief smile faded. ‘Our persecutors waged war upon us, and Waqqa stopped sending them rain, and the lands around our homeland burned to dust under the hot sun, and their cattle died and man went hungry. And Waqqa sent them pestilence, and floods from the sea to drown their fertile plains, and then he sent famine.’

Eba, Moti’s grandson, climbed onto Moti’s lap and nestled into the old man’s arms. ‘What’s famine, Moti?’

Moti tousled the little boy’s black curls. ‘Famine is when crops don’t grow and cattle die and there’s no food to eat, Eba.’

Eba frowned. ‘But I like food, Moti.’

His old friend laughed gently. ‘And don’t we know it. Don’t worry, little one, Waqqa isn’t angry with us. We have plenty of food. You won’t go hungry. Quiet, now.’

He mentally shared out the meagre supplies they’d managed to bring to the cavern and hoped Moti was right.

Moti cuddled the child to his chest. ‘Yes, Waqqa sent famine… So they coveted our land and our cattle and our water, and wanted it for themselves, and in their arrogance they took what they wanted and the people of Boorana, who held the peace of the Boorana, above all else, were pushed closer and closer to the vast desert that bordered their lands.

‘And as the land flooded, men fought for food or starved. Many of our people travelled west or south and vanished from our knowledge. And some, our forefathers amongst them, travelled north driving their herds of goats and their huge Boran cattle before them. They followed the great river looking for somewhere to settle, but always they were turned away and were pushed ever closer to the Great Sahara.’

The tallow lamp guttered: dark fingers fled from the crevices and the ring of light faded. Moti paused and indicated that he should light fresh candles. He forced aching bones to fetch some from the rock shelf and lit them. The ring of light grew again steadily, shadows dancing across the walls as Moti continued, Eba asleep in his arms. Let the child sleep: he’d wake to the horror of a new dawn soon enough.

‘Many died on that dreadful journey. The heat hazes of the desert deceived them and led them to their deaths. No rain fell for forty days and forty nights, and the sun seared their eyes and burned their backs. One by one they fell, the old, the sick and the very young… Then the Boran cattle began dying and then the goats. Some of our people turned back but it’s said their bleached bones lie scattered still in the Great Sahara.

‘A small knot of our men and women staggered on, living on the flesh of their dead goats and cattle, and for this we give thanks. When the last of the nanny goats and cows had suckled their young for the final time, our forefathers carried two bull calves and two heifer calves, and two nanny kids and two billy kids on their backs. This way they reached the foothills of Idraren Draren, which is Berber for Mountains of Mountains, and came at last to the high place we now call Guddaa Mana.

‘The people who lived here greeted our people warily, in a tongue we didn’t understand. Birmajii, who had been Abbaa Seera, the memoriser of the laws of his village, put down the two bull calves in front of the strangers, and indicated that the other men should also give up the two nanny-goat kids, while he kept the two heifer calves and the billy kids. In this way he showed the strangers that we had something to share with them, and that without co-operation none would benefit.

‘Seeing that we came in peace, we were allowed a small piece of land by the river that falls down from the mountains where we could build our houses.

‘And one came amongst us who declared our people the Adams and Eves of a new age. He bade us keep our hearts pure and lust not after the fruits of the tree of knowledge, for in that way would we preserve the nagaa Boorana and would be blessed with a great gift. Wise men have puzzled, father to son, over the meaning of these words, yet we heeded them for a pure heart respects the peace of the Boorana.’

He nodded imperceptibly at Moti’s comment. A long-dead pope had decreed these people blessed of God many generations ago. It was why he was here, why they mattered so much.

‘He said that he spoke the tongue of God, which was understood by all the peoples of the earth. And we learned this tongue, and so it has proved to be, for the few travellers who come here can be readily understood. And we lived in peace with ourselves, and the animals, and the land, for that is to have the blessings of Waqqa. But that was many fathers of fathers ago, and now our cultures and our bloods have merged and we speak this language which is known by all but native to neither of our peoples, though we keep some of our Oromo words and our god and our stories, for to remember the past is to remember the future.’

Moti looked at him and raised a brief smile. All the children were asleep.

He lay back against the wall and closed his own eyes, retreating from the hell he’d allowed to visit this second Eden. Guilt lay a heavy hand on his heart: this was his fault, his lapse of attention. The brethren still believed these gentle, innocent people to be chosen of God. Any one of these children, or their children’s children… he pushed the thought away and rubbed a hand across his eyes. Some of the little ones hadn’t made it here.

 

 

This is interesting, said the dog, when asked to guard a container of cheese – Oromo proverb.

 

Chapter Three

 

The stench of burning filled Kiya’s lungs. Her arm gripped by Alaric’s huge hand, she stumbled after him across the flat space in the centre of the village. Bodies littered the ground and the number of dead Northmen attested to the fight the men of the village had put up. Every male body was Raphel. Every dead woman was Genet or their mother. Every tiny body was Jalene. Too many, she recognized as much-loved friends. Wind-dried tears stiffened her cheeks: she was numb with grief.

Some of the stone-roofed houses built higher into the hillside still stood undamaged by fire, but Alaric dragged her towards one of the only thatched houses left standing. It was the home she’d built with Raphel from stone and sun-dried mud; they’d cut branches for the roof timbers and gathered reeds from the lake, down-stream. Her heart hammered in her chest as she entered the low room. Jalene’s cot was empty. Raphel wasn’t here.

She swung to face him. ‘Where are my husband and child?’

‘Dead.’ He gripped her shoulders, flung her onto the bed and stared at her, as if considering her fate.

Dead. The word had a finality to it she refused to believe. Her clothing was torn. She clutched it around her, trying to read his face. If she could reach the gutting knife, she’d slit him from throat to belly. Her muscles tensed to move.

He pushed her back again. ‘High Priest Velik doesn’t care what we do to men and children. He gave no orders other than to bring young women of your race with us, alive. Something my men keep forgetting in their zeal. If you’re The Gift… or if you’re not…’ He appeared to come to a decision. ‘You may die on the way, being so small and weakly, and we must surely find others who are stronger. It would be a shame to waste the spoils of war. You’re mine by right. I’ll enjoy breaking you.’

She had no chance of escape, no hope of reasoning with him: no hope. Why give him the pleasure of a conquest? ‘If you leave me alive, I promise I’ll kill you. You’ll be forever watching your back.’

Alaric took her in her and Raphel’s bed, the bed where they’d loved and where Jalene had been born. His manhood ripped her small body, his weight crushed her, and the stench of his rancid skin made her want to retch, but she uttered no sound and made no movement. He’d wanted a conquest to brag about, to massage his male ego: although he shook her and hit her, all she gave him was the passion and fight of a limp, dead fish. He shook his head, as if he didn’t understand her, and then got up and went outside.

She rolled onto her side and carefully, holding onto chairs, made it across the room to the rack where the knives hung. She took down the gutting knife with her good hand and returned to her bed. Hiding the knife beneath the bedclothes, she curled into a ball, held her stomach with her hands and let her tears fall. Everyone she loved was gone. ‘Atete, take me. Waqqa take me. Make me spirit. Give me back to those I love.’ She lay awake for a long time, waiting for Alaric to return and take her again, or kill her, but he didn’t come. Finally, the pain subsided and she fell into an exhausted sleep: Jalene was roasted on a spit and eaten, while Alaric laughed.

***

Kiya woke to the sound of shouting. She leapt from her bed grabbing her travelling clothes, and doubled as the pain in her hand and the agony inside tore through her. The memory of the day before crushed her. She felt for her knife but couldn’t grip it with her right hand. It felt unwieldy in her left, but she moved carefully to the door, aware of the pull of dried blood caking her thighs. A sliver of light shone through the narrow gap between the part-open door and the frame, bringing with it the taste of smoldering ash.

She put an eye to the gap. Only now, seeing the Northmen together, did she realise how huge they really were, how little chance any of the village men had had to fight them off. The bodies of the dead had been thrown in heaps, the Northmen’s dumped with the same lack of respect they had for their enemies. The dead didn’t look so many as she’d feared, this morning: maybe, some had only been injured and had escaped in the night. She fingered her cäle. ‘Please, Great Goddess Atete, goddess of fate, who has the power of life, let Raphel and Jalene be alive. Let Genet and Mother be safe.’

Alaric detached himself from the body of men and strode towards the door. She shrank back against the wall, knife raised.

The door was flung open. Alaric stooped to enter and she lunged at him. He caught her wrist with a swift, effortless movement and twisted the knife from her grip. ‘You think me so stupid?’ He gestured his impatience. ‘Quickly, girl. Get dressed. Come.’

She shrugged clumsily into clean clothes, tears brimming. She turned her back on him and fetched a box. In it were sturdy, finely-wrought pins, brought years ago by Abe from across the mountains. She used them to fasten the neck of her winter djellaba, her warm, hooded travelling-robe.

‘Hurry, girl.’

‘My name is Kiya.’

‘Yes, I remember. Kiya the Herbalist. Come, I need you.’ He looked at the pin in her hand. ‘If you attempt my life again, or attempt escape, I shall pick out both your eyes with that pin.’

She raised her chin. ‘When I attempt your life again, Alaric, I shall have no need to fear my own pins.’

His mouth curved in a slow smile. ‘You have courage, herbalist. Now come, before I’m tempted to prick you again with my pin.’ He laughed at his own joke, but he fetched a piece of twine from a hook on the wall and bound her wrists.

She straightened, though her broken fingers throbbed and her wrists burned. This big man feared her. He was a coward.

Alaric led her across the ruins of the village. ‘The men are searching for hiding places. We’re skilled trackers, taught from youth. We’ll find these women you’ve hidden.’

She spat at him. ‘Only a coward seeks to dominate the weak.’

He looked at her for a long moment. ‘The strong dominate the weak. It’s the way of the world… why we survive. Don’t we kill the weakling calf and rear the strong?’

‘In our culture we help the weak. There are other virtues than breadth of back and thickness of skull.’

He tilted his head to one side. ‘This may be true in your world. It’s not our way. Come.’

He yanked at her tether and forced her onwards, past the burning ruins, past the heap of dead. She craned her neck, searching the tangled limbs and lifeless faces. Her heart lurched. Raphel? Was that Raphel? ‘Please, Goddess, no.’

Enemy soldiers scanned the ground and moved off towards the hillside. She stumbled after them, blind with tears, averting her face from the rock that marked the trail to the caverns. She must stay strong for Jalene. Please, Goddess, Jalene was there safe. Please, Goddess, they’d made it to the safety of the caverns. Please, Goddess, they’d left no tracks in their haste.

‘Over here.’ A man gestured and pointed upwards where a thin cleft in the rock, the entrance to the cavern, painted a line of broken shadow on the mountainside.

They climbed and reached the cleft. Alaric pulled her closer, watching her expression intently. ‘Is this the hideout?’

She shrugged, brushing aside tears with the backs of her hands. ‘It’s a place we played as children. It’s a small cave, that’s all. I think wildcats use it. Or maybe cheetahs. The children are forbidden to play here, now.’ She moved closer and sniffed. ‘Definitely cheetah. Unpredictable animals, but go in and check if you want.’

‘My shoulders won’t fit through. Anson… you’re thin as a streak of piss. Check if this is a cheetah lair.’

‘Check it yourself, Alaric. Or send the girl in.’

Her heart leapt at the chance of safety, but Alaric surely wouldn’t give up on his gift and the orders he’d been charged to fulfil. If the villagers had made it to the caverns, they couldn’t stay there indefinitely. He could wait them out.

She raised an eyebrow in disdain. ‘And if the cheetah eats me, you’ll be no wiser. There could be a back entrance and you’d never know I’d escaped. You Northmen aren’t very bright, are you, Alaric?’

‘Silence, girl.’ He yanked her to her knees and gestured to the men. ‘Keep searching.’

She scrambled to her feet and followed him, her eyes scanning the rocky ground to hide her relief. The sun was sinking over the western peaks before they gave up the search. Her relief was more than the safety of Jalene and those she loved: she’d realised she wanted to live and, as the only woman he’d captured so far, she seemed to have value to Alaric, alive.

***

Death suppurated from the pile of stiffening bodies, their blood-stained clothing flapping gently in the breeze: limbs tangled at impossible angles, sightless eyes stared skywards at the circling vultures. A fly landed on Raphel’s nose and walked across his eyelids, pausing to sample the crusted salt in the corner of his eye. More flies buzzed noisily, incessantly, occasionally landing on the blood that had congealed on his leg. The body next to him had no head, but he could tell by the bone knife in the still-clenched hand, that Guddaa Mana had lost its oldest and most revered Abbaa Bokku, their village elder.

His limbs were stiff with pain and his ribs stabbed but, apart from that one brief look in the early hours by the light of the burning houses, he hadn’t moved. He listened, as he’d listened all night, to the sounds of the Northmen, their rough but melodic speech distinct from their own softer tones. Their voices were fewer now, and quieter, as if they were moving away.

He waited, going over in his mind again what had happened and how he’d failed. They’d had little enough time to get the women and children to safety after Abe had run into the village, breathless and clutching his chest, hauling his mule after him.

He’d thought, in his arrogance, being the younger, fitter man, he could save Moti’s daughter but the enemy soldier had been too strong and too well-armed. He was weak, a mere storyteller not a fighter, and his slight form and simple work-knife had been no match for his opponent’s strength and weapons.

He prayed he’d bought Moti time to reach the cavern. He prayed Kiya was still safely far from home. His leg throbbed, and breathing hurt. He’d taken a blow to his chest and the Northman’s spear in his thigh: he’d been pinned to the ground, unable to move, while Temara was savagely butchered. What he couldn’t understand was why the larger soldier had slit the smaller one’s stomach. What was it he’d said? Velik’s orders were to bring back prisoners, not kill them all. What did this Velik want with prisoners and where did he want them taken?

Unable to be of any further use, he’d played dead, letting his limbs go limp when the spear was jerked out of his leg, and he was thrown over the shoulder of a Northman and hurled onto the pile of bodies.

It had been silent, but for the buzzing of the flies and the mournful squawk of the vultures, long enough for the sun to move the shadow of a dead limb across his nose. Cautiously, he opened one eye and then the other. He turned his face and stared into blue, Northman eyes, sightless and staring. He raised his head. The village appeared deserted. Agony speared through his leg and chest as he tried to move.

He crawled across the bodies dragging his wounded leg and dizzy from loss of blood. Once in the cover of a stand of juniper bushes and low oaks, he rested, weak and breathless. The movement had opened his wound, but it was a flesh wound, and not as deep as he’d feared: he tore a strip of cloth from his shirt and bound his thigh. He’d lost a lot of blood already, and couldn’t afford more. He slumped against a rock and waited, breathing raggedly: he had to be sure no-one had seen him move before he attempted to reach the cavern. He’d wait until dark.

***

Kiya’s fingers were swollen and purple as a ripe bilberry. Alaric had used her again, but she’d given him no satisfaction. She’d lain limp in his arms and thought of Raphel and Jalene. It was only her body Alaric abused, not her spirit. Her spirit lay with Raphel.

Alaric shook her again. ‘Pack what you need. Hurry.’

‘Where are we going?’

‘You ask too many questions. Pack for the cold. Bring what food you have.’

She did as she was told and included her precious sheets of waxed paper for collecting herbs. Medicines were something she never passed by. Even a brute like Alaric would understand the need for herbs and healing. She looked around the room seeing only loss. Somehow, she’d find a way to escape and return, for Jalene and Raphel, if they were alive. She wrapped her pack and her bedding roll in waxed cloth against the wet, threw them over one shoulder, and headed outside.

Alaric bound her wrists again and tugged her forward. She averted her eyes from the pile of bodies that bloated in the sun and followed him in silence as he headed away from the village.

His companions appeared to have reservations. ‘There are other villages, Alaric.’ A shorter, sturdy soldier waved his hand down the valley. ‘There may be richer pickings back down the mountain.’

Alaric’s laugh was tinged with sarcasm. ‘Like the rich pickings in that village north of here, Garth? Old women and bits of coloured cloth?’ Alaric puffed out his chest. ‘Velik charged me to fulfil the prophecy, or die. Velik’s orders are to take back a woman of this race, a dark-eyed woman from this side of the mountains, and the blood, of course.’

‘They’re your orders, Alaric. I didn’t hear him give us those orders.’ Garth faced his comrades. ‘Did you hear him, boys? Are you ready to leave these easy pickings?’ Garth, his second-in-command, played with his testicles. ‘We’ve found the woman you wanted. I say us boys go find ourselves some more. Have a bit of fun.’

He leaned towards the man, his face inches from the other’s. ‘I’ve had it with you rabble. You can do what the fuck you like. Me and the girl will have more pleasure without you but, if you want my advice, when you find these easy pickings you’ll take Velik back something to make it worth him keeping your head off a spike. And make sure you make it back before the pass closes. He doesn’t suffer insubordination or failure, Garth.’

She huffed her disdain. ‘Unlike you, Alaric.’

He yanked her leash. ‘Silence, girl.’

She straightened. Alaric was no leader of men. Why had he been chosen?

The soldiers laughed and turned aside down the valley towards M’gouna. She had a cousin and friends in M’gouna. She mouthed a silent prayer as she and Alaric watched them go. Atete, protect them.

Alaric turned north towards the mountains, alone, dragging her behind him: his broad back, carrying his pack, bedding roll, sword and battle-axe, filled her view. She craned her neck for a last look at the smoking ruins of her village, caught her foot on a rock and tripped. Alaric yanked her to her feet, but not before she’d torn her cäle from around her neck and scattered all but a tightly-gripped handful of coloured beads onto the track.

 

*

Where a strong man may succeed with muscle, a weaker man must use cunning – Anon.

Chapter Four

 

Abe looked up at a slight scraping noise. They’d sat at the edge of the circle of light for what seemed like forever but, according to the marks that had burned away on the precious candles, night drew on again. Northmen voices outside had kept them silent prisoners all day but for hours now they’d heard nothing. He feared for Genet and her mother, and chafed with impatience, but daren’t risk moving them until he was certain it was safe. As soon as it was fully dark, he’d scout the area and try to help them to the cavern. The noise came again, and he and Moti exchanged glances. Two women and half a dozen men had found their way to the caverns during the previous night but he’d almost given up hope of any more successfully evading the Northmen’s bloody swords. The scraping stopped and then began again briefly. Had Genet decided to brave the journey unaided?

He listened intently but no more sound came. ‘Someone’s in trouble.’

The shadows deepened Moti’s frown. ‘It could be a trap.’

‘Stay here. I’ll go and look.’ He took a candle and picked his way through the hunched figures huddled together for warmth and comfort. Beyond the soft flickering light, the passage was black as night. He shaded his candle with his hand and felt his way with cautious steps. A body lay on the floor. ‘Moti… It’s Raphel.’

Moti arrived bearing a lantern. ‘He’s alive?’

He leaned closer and a warm breath fluttered against his cheek. ‘Barely.’ Together they supported him back to the cavern, and laid him on a woven grass mat.

Moti’s wife, Lelisa, a little, white-haired bird of a woman, rose to fetch water and cloth. She waved the men aside and unwrapped the makeshift bandage. ‘Hold a light. Closer.’

Moti raised his lantern.

He cursed the lack of fire, and the lack of his packs abandoned on the trail. Raphel needed warmth, and boiled water to clean the wound. Kiya would have herbs when she came. If she came in time. If she came…

‘It’s not as bad as I feared.’ Lelisa’s taut shoulders relaxed slightly but her usually smiling face was grim. ‘He’s weak from lost blood but he’ll heal. I wish Kiya was here. Bring me my pouch. There should be a little woundwort left in there. And heat water over some candles.’

Why hadn’t he thought of that? ‘Bless you, Lelisa.’

Raphel’s eyelids fluttered. He moaned and opened them. ‘Kiya? Jalene?’

‘Jalene’s here safe. Kiya hasn’t returned yet.’

Raphel lifted his head. ‘How many?’

Moti, crouched at Raphel’s side, put a hand on the young man’s arm. ‘Rest, Raphel. Fifteen men are unaccounted for. All but five of the women made it here and all but two of the children are safe.’ Moti’s eyes betrayed his anxiety. ‘Raphel… Temara?’

Raphel shook his head. His eyes were bright with tears. ‘I’m sorry, Moti, Lelisa... I… I wasn’t strong enough.’

Moti put a hand on his wife’s shoulder and got to his feet without a word. The old man picked his way to where Eba slept and sat by his grandson’s side: he stared silently into the shadowy depths of the cavern.

Raphel sank back. ‘Abe… I…’

He peered from beneath the brim of his hat and patted Raphel’s arm. ‘It’s all right, Raphel. You did your best. Rest now.’ Raphel was slight of build, and not tall. He had the long, slender fingers and delicate hands that told of his talent as a musician, and the gentle, evocative voice and sensitive face of a gifted storyteller: he was a weaver of dreams, not a fighter.

Even four candles were slow to boil a tiny amount of water. Lelisa’s hunched shoulders shuddered beneath her traditional black and yellow robe, and her face was bright with tears. She took the offered water, nodded and waved him away with a quick flick of her hand: healing was women’s work and he was in the way.

He left the soft circle of light and crept to the mouth of the cavern. Outside, the stars shone palely in a moonlit sky. The sound of the river below was loud in the silence. A movement caught his eye and he shrank back into shadow. He’d been wise to wait until the light failed. A dark shape flitted from rock to rock, barely discernable in the half-light, followed by another. He drew his knife and left the safety of the cave mouth using the cover of boulders: if his attack was unsuccessful, he wanted to draw no attention to the cleft in the cliff face.

The movement came again to his right. He tensed, breath held: surprise must make up for age and lack of strength. A soft laboured breath sounded, close by, followed by a whimper: he raised his knife hand and stole from his hiding-place. His fingers gripped cloth and flesh as he brought the knife down.

The body twisted aside. The scream jolted him to a halt. ‘Dear God, Genet.’

‘Abe… Waqqa preserves us.’

‘Who’s with you?’

‘Mother.’

‘Quickly, get inside. I’ll help her.’ He reached for the older woman’s arm and supported her across the last rocks to the cave entrance. ‘The floor’s smooth. Keep one hand on the wall. It’s not far.’ The soft whimper came again, this time from the cave mouth. ‘Genet’s had her baby?’ His dream flooded back.

‘A boy. Safe and well, thank the goddess. We stayed where you hid us until the murderers left.’

The child was safe. ‘They’ve gone? You’re sure?’

‘We watched them go. We waited for a long while but they didn’t come back.’ Genet’s mother clutched his sleeve. ‘Is Kiya here?’

‘No. I’d hoped she was with you and Genet.’

‘She should have been back by now.’

‘She could have seen the fires and stayed away.’

‘Not Kiya… she’d have come at any cost. Raphel… Jalene?’

‘Safe. Raphel is injured but Lelisa says he’ll be well, in time.’

Raphel propped himself on one elbow, the effort showing in his face. ‘Where’s Kiya?’ When no-one answered he tried to get to his feet. ‘I have to find her. She could be hurt.’

‘Raphel, if she’s made camp for another night, she’ll probably be back tomorrow.’

‘But she knew Genet’s child was almost due.’

He saw the truth in Raphel’s words. ‘We could trample her tracks in the dark.’ He tried to smile reassuringly. ‘Rest tonight. At dawn we’ll look for her, I promise.’

Raphel nodded and sank back to the matting. ‘Jalene?’

She was somewhere amongst the huddle of quiet bodies. ‘She’s asleep.’ He left Raphel in capable hands and went back to the cave mouth. He found a secure place where he could watch the valley for the least movement, and listen for any sound that wasn’t the rushing river.

***

Raphel shook the old peddler by the shoulder. ‘Abe… Abe, wake up.’

‘What?’ Abe’s eyes shot open. ‘Just closed my eyes. You look done in, boy. You should be resting.’

Slivers of silver and gold etched the pre-dawn sky. The moon hung low and an Urji Dhaha, a group of guiding stars, twinkled brightly. ‘It’s almost dawn. Abe, Genet and her mother are caring for Jalene. I’m going to look for Kiya. I’m going back to the village to see if she’s been there.’

Abe frowned. ‘You can walk?’

He clenched his teeth against the pain. ‘I’ll crawl if I have to.’

‘I’ll come with you. Two pairs of eyes are better than one.’

They slipped down the mountainside like shadows, stepping from stone to stone to leave no tracks in the earth. Each step stabbed at his ribs and pulled at the gut Lelisa had used to close his thigh wound: each step chafed painfully against fabric stiff with his own dried blood. The sun rose over the mountains to the south-east, bathing the smoking ruins of the village in the light of a new day. The only thatched house standing was his own. He limped towards it, ignoring Abe’s words of caution, angry at his weakness and careless of who might see him. ‘Kiya?’

The door stood open. Inside was much as he’d left it two, or was it three, days ago? Their bed was rumpled as if someone had left it in haste. Kiya? He picked clothes from the floor.

Abe stood at his side. ‘Kiya’s?’

He held out a shirt. ‘Torn, Abe… She’s been here.’

‘Either she tore it on the trail, changed and left in a hurry, or someone else tore this.’

Bile rose into his throat. ‘Her pack’s not here. Kiya wouldn’t leave without knowing Jalene was safe. Abe, they’ve taken her. I’m sure of it.’ He grabbed a pack from a hook by the fireplace and stuffed things into it.

‘Have you eaten?’

‘You think of nothing but your stomach, old man.’ He patted the backpack, mentally checking its contents: flint, snares, needle and gut, bedding roll, cooking pot, dried meat, bread, knives... Lotar: he went nowhere without his lotar. He strapped the instrument of his trade to his pack: it had bought him a meal and a night’s refuge at many a dwelling. He’d find out what he’d forgotten when he needed it. Clean trousers would be softer to his wound: he changed quickly. ‘We’ll eat and drink on the hoof.’

‘We’re riding?’

‘Do you see horses?’ He strung his bow, wincing as pain shot through his thigh muscles, and drew his fingers through the flights of a handful of arrows to smooth them. ‘Come. Waqqa sends us daylight. We mustn’t waste it.’

‘But your leg.’

He shrugged on a blue djellaba, a loose garment well-suited for travelling, and wound an indigo tagelmust around his head in the manner of the Berber who, stories told, had been driven here centuries before from the deep Sahara.

Abe studied him as if seeing him for the first time. ‘You make a striking figure, Raphel. You’ve grown into a fine man. It’s no wonder Kiya chose you.’

He rubbed the stubble he hadn’t had time to shave. ‘I have to find her, Abe.’

‘I know, Raphel.’ The old man looked torn.

‘The dead will be honoured and re-united with the ancestors. Moti will spread grass on their graves and use the last of our precious coffee beans. The ceremony of buna qalla will be carried out according to our custom and their circle of life will be complete. The village will be rebuilt. There are enough willing hands without mine, and Waqqa will bless them.’

Abe nodded. ‘I don’t fully understand your ceremonies, but I know how important they are to you. In the spring, God willing, I’ll bring you more coffee beans for your buna qalla.’

‘By then it will probably make a welcome change from ground acorns.’

Abe removed his battered hat and rubbed the back of his neck. He seemed to be trying to convince himself of something. ‘I’ve prayed for the souls of the dead. The Northmen seem to have moved on to other pickings.’

He slung his pack, bow and quiver of arrows on his back and scanned the rocks and river below. No movement. Following the Northmen’s tracks, he led the way down towards the river and moved into the shelter of trees.

Abe put a hand on his arm. ‘Hazel. I’ll cut you a stick. And I’ll fetch Moses from the paddock. If we check the trails to the south first, I can retrieve my packs… my supplies.’

He grunted. ‘I don’t need a stick, old man.’

Abe slashed at a branch, releasing a straight stick with his machete. ‘You’re limping for effect, then, boy?’

He forced a smile. ‘I dare say we’ll both need one, Abe.’ He took the stick, dressed it and cut it to length, while the old man leaned on his staff. He glanced along the trail. ‘The tracks are heading downstream. If she’s with them, we should find her prints.’

Abe turned downstream, walking slowly in front of him, back bent. Impatient for speed, he drew abreast and scanned the ground for signs of Kiya. He stopped to peer closer at confused tracks in the soft earth.

Abe pointed. ‘Plenty of Northmen tracks. See the size of those boots… and the hobnails.’

He pushed the inevitable thought away. ‘Men with feet that big can’t move quietly. She’d have heard them coming… hidden. We won’t find her tracks here.’

Abe said nothing but moved to the side of the track. ‘Here, Raphel. Look.’

He squatted by the small imprint of a soft-soled shoe. ‘Kiya. See the pattern of the stitching there? I made those shoes for her last winter.’

Abe scratched his ear. ‘They’re heading towards the village. The Northmen’s prints lead away from the village.’

He stared downstream for a long moment. The brutes were heading in the direction of M’Gouna and it was too late to warn the people there. ‘Her imprint is less sharp. The Northmen passed here more recently. Kiya’s track is two days-old, at least.’

He and Abe trod cautiously, looking for tell-tale prints: there was nothing to suggest Kiya had turned off the trail or that she’d was going to M’Gouna with the Northmen.

Abe leaned heavily on his staff. ‘Suppose she’s hiding out, somewhere near the village, Raphel. Or she could be lying injured, somewhere, or…’

He shook his head. ‘She’s alive. And she’d have made it to the caverns by now. I heard the Northman say they were taking prisoners.’ He scanned the ground again. ‘She didn’t come this way. If the Northmen have her… maybe they split forces. Maybe we’ll find tracks on the other trails?’

‘I need to fetch my packs, and I can check for her tracks as I go. Scout around, and make your way back towards the village. I’ll catch you up around noon.’

He watched the old man disappear round a bend in the trail and then turned for home, walking slowly and scanning the trail and the surrounding ground for Kiya’s soft-soled prints. There was no sign she’d been this way recently.

He was at the north edge of the village, kneeling on the track, when Abe arrived. ‘Here, Abe. Kiya’s print, heading north.’

Abe frowned. ‘And a Northman print…’

‘One Northman. You think he has Kiya prisoner?’

‘We don’t know that.’

He walked slowly, following the loping tracks of the Northman and the shorter, uneven stride of Kiya’s prints. Something shone in the dirt. He stooped to pick it up. ‘A bead, Abe. What’s a bead doing here?’

Abe squatted by his side. ‘Here’s another.’

‘And another… Abe, these beads are from Kiya’s cäle. This red bead with the white stripes was her grandmother’s. Kiya wouldn’t have left these. She’d have stopped to pick them up, if…’ He gathered together all the beads he could find. Kiya would need them in her prayers to Atete. Her face would light like sun on water when he produced them.

Abe brought him back to the trampled, sun-dried mud of the trail. ‘I’m sorry, Raphel, but… these prints… it looks as if the Northman has her captive.’

He looked northwards along the trail. ‘I’m going after her. I’ll bring her home.’

‘If the Northman plans to take her across the mountains…’ Abe sucked in his cheeks as if still deliberating some inner turmoil. ‘Moti knows the possible dangers, now. The Northmen won’t take them by surprise again.’ He appeared to come to a decision. ‘You can’t go alone. I’m coming with you. I know the road north over Qara Kaaya. It’s a long and tortuous trail.’

Qara Kaaya, the Pass of the Giants. The name of myth had mayflies dancing in his stomach. ‘Abe…’ How could he put this? ‘Abe, you said yourself you need to be home before the snows come.’

Abe straightened his back. ‘Kiya’s like a daughter to me. I’ll go where my heart leads me.’

He put a gentle hand on the old man’s arm. ‘Abe, I’m going alone. I’m younger than you… you’ll slow me down.’

‘You’re saying I’m slower than a man who limps with a stick?’ A spasm of pain crossed Abe’s face. ‘I know these Northmen. They’re giants of men. Ferocious killers, battle trained. How will you face a giant, alone, Raphel?’ Abe’s face softened. ‘Together, we may stand a chance.’

‘Where a strong man may succeed with muscle, a weaker man must use cunning. I’ll think of something.’ He flexed his leg, determined not to show his fear. ‘Walking’s getting easier. In a day or two, I’ll be back to normal.’

Abe smiled. ‘I know you’re right, but… Yes, I’ll slow you down, but I have… I know the land north of the mountains. You need my knowledge.’

He limped north, his thigh stiff with pain from the short stop, Abe and his mule walking at his side. Truth be told, he was glad not be going alone. His head swam: he’d have to sit down soon or he’d fall down. He was a storyteller: Abe was an old man, a peddler. What in Waqqa’s name did they know of cunning?

Want to read on? Get it at http://getbook.at/WhereHopeDares

 


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