(This is the first chapter of the novella explaining the backstory of the desert oasis city, Kalah Telath, that Celitia’s mother is from.)
Hazera walked the familiar path from the palace lined with orange trees just now losing their blossoms. The wilted petals were soft under her bare feet, covering the smoothed stones leading to the sacred gardens surrounding the Waters of the Goddess, the lifeblood of the desert oasis city of Kahlah Telath. Usually, she was filled with peace here, but not today. Today she held only grief in her heart.
She picked up her pace, hoping to plead for her child one last time before they left. Reaching the gardens, her gaze swept to the horizon as the dust cloud kicked up by the advancing army grew ever larger. She struggled to tear her eyes from that new, unknown enemy and turned her attention to the enemy she knew: the previous invaders.
The soldiers had led their pack animals into the pool itself, its typically crystal clear waters churning with mud. They filled their wooden barrels directly from the sacred source of the pool, a beautiful waterfall pouring out from the jagged rocks on the far side. This sacrilegious act could only have been ordered by their general, the self-styled king of her city, her husband.
“Why can’t we just use one of the fountains near the gate? It would be faster,” said one soldier as he lugged a full barrel to the waiting mule.
“Do you trust the women of Kahlah Telath, boy?” an older, grizzled soldier asked. “They hate us for what we did to their husbands, sons, and brothers when we took the city. Any one of them could have poisoned the cisterns and fountains anywhere between here and the gate. This is the only source of water we can be certain is safe,” the older man said. He eyed Hazera suspiciously as she approached, but continued to speak in their harsh language, complaining of the underhanded ways the women could hurt them.
While she did not pretend to not understand, she still hid her full knowledge of their tongue. She had learned quickly over the eight years since they had arrived. She had little choice when her family had been murdered, all except her. She had been just barely a woman, and taken as a bride by Ruick. She understood the desire of the women to seek vengeance. She, too, felt the cold iron in her heart, to make these violent men reap what they had sown that day, and all the days since.
She stepped into the garden, her bare feet sinking into the soft dirt. The damage to the flowers and bushes was much like the city itself. It was broken and disheveled, but would heal and grow again. All that was needed was time and tender care. The mothers and grandmothers of this oasis had survived such rapine and pillaging over the last one thousand years, their daughters would do the same.
Hazera strode past the soldiers unmolested as they hastily packed the camels with more barrels. They ignored her. She was no threat to them. None of the invaders over the centuries eve viewed women as a danger, except for the slight possibility of poison. They were only for sport, forced marriage, and to be the mothers of a new crop of soldiers.
She stopped in front of her husband. Her skirt made of multicolored strips of silk swished around her as she curtsied, keeping her eyes averted. He took any direct gaze as a challenge to his authority, especially from someone equal in height, as she was. She had left her feet bare in the hope losing the quarter of an inch she gained from sandals would make him more agreeable.
“Please, Ruick, reconsider!” Hazera begged, her hands clutching the strips of silk.
“Do not question me, woman!” Ruick said as he raised his voice. “He is my heir, not yours!”
“I beg you, he is the only family I have!” she sobbed, losing the quiet dignity she typically maintained. Tears streaked her sun-darkened cheeks as she fell to her knees.
She fliched as she saw his hand, but Ruick did not strike her. He tipped her chin up, bringing her gaze to his. He pulled her to her feet and led her to the shade cast by large, leafy plants. He was playing the part of the gentle husband today.
“You know I cannot leave him here. In that dust,” he pointed to the cloud on the horizon, “are the armies from the south, coming to seize the city. If Ulfig stays with you, they will surely kill him.” Ruick’s tone was cold but not cruel.
“Could I at least say goodbye?” Hazera asked, wiping away her tears.
“I will allow you to accompany him to the gate, but no further,” he said. He reached out and tugged lightly the string that held her top secure. “I only wish I could take you back with me. I hate to leave such a beautiful jewel behind. You would fetch an excellent price at the slave markets in the west.” He dropped his hand as if to dismiss her, turning to his men and barking out orders as he complained about the delay.
Hazera took a deep breath and gave a quiet thanks to the Goddess that she would not be stolen from her home. While she would miss her son immensely, she was grateful Ruick would soon be out of her life. His unpredictable mood swings gave each day a dangerous uncertainty. And each time he came to her bed she remembered the first, when he was still covered in the blood of her family.
She wiped her face with her hand and fixed the braid that held her dark hair. The women of Kalah Telath would need to see their queen as strong and dignified, to give them courage to face their new conquerers. What if these new masters were worse than the men from the west? She knew little of the world and the peoples beyond the desert that surrounded the oasis.
The soldiers wasted little time filling the last of the water skins, strapping them on the camels and the smaller beasts. The entire army, or at least the full occupying force, set off towards the North Gate, passing through the glittering white city.
Hazera walked alongside her son, leading his camel. He sniffled quietly, as always not wanting the men to see his boyish tears. Ulfig clutched her hand, but did not speak. He was the youngest of the group, only allowed to leave with the men because his father was Ruick. The other sons made during the occupation clung to their mothers’ skirts as they watched their fathers abandon them as the procession crossed the city.
The walk was over much too quickly. At the gate, as the men filed their beasts through the narrow passage, she pulled her boy into her arms.
“Remember to be a brave boy,” she said as she stroked his hair, so like her own. Ulfig clutched her, refusing to let go.
“Momma, I don’t want to leave you!” he sobbed, crying now in earnest. Her heart was breaking.
“Please, Ruick, I beg you, please leave me my boy!”
Ruick angrily marched over and ripped him from her arms. He sat the boy on the camel and gave it a swat on its rump, urging it to join the others. Hazera grabbed his arm.
“I beg-” Ruick’s fist caught her in the jaw, knocking her to the ground. She sobbed, both in pain and despair.
“He is MY son, not yours!” he bellowed. “Stay on your back, where you belong, and maybe these invaders will let you live.” Ruick spat on the ground next to her before vaulting onto his own steed.
She laid there next to the Northern Gate of the Goddess, watching the soldiers flee with her only kin.
“Kalah Telath – Sneak Peak” copyright © 2018 by Richelle Sepulveda