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TALLY heard the guttural shouts seconds before the gunfire. Dropping to her stomach, she hugged her camera and struggled to protect her head.
"Soussi al-Kebir," her guide screamed as he ran from her. Soussi al-Kebir? Tally pressed her forearm to her face, struggling to make sense of the words with the little Arabic she knew.
Soussi were Berbers from the south, those that lived close to the desert. And al-Kebir was big or great. But Soussi al-Kebir?
More gunfire rang in the small town square, the rat-a-tat of machine gunfire and the hard clattering of horses' hooves.
Was this an ambush? Robbery? What?
Heart racing, Tally hugged the cobblestones closer, her camera gripped tightly in the crook of her arm, certain any moment a whizzing bullet would hit her.
Not far from her a man screamed and fell. She heard him hit the ground, the heavy thud of body against stone. Moments later red liquid ran toward her, inches from her face and she recoiled, lifting her head to avoid the blood.
It was then a shadow stretched long above her, the shadow enormous, blocking the intense Barakan sun.
Fear melted Tally's heart. She wanted to squeeze her eyes shut but fear wouldn't let her. She wanted to be brave and bold, but fear wouldn't let her. Instead she huddled there, eyes riveted to the shadow and the foot frighteningly close to her head.
The foot was big and covered in pale suede. The soft leather boot the type desert tribesmen wore, they were made of the softest, most supple leather to protect from the heat of the sand and yet light to make walking in the soft surface easier. White fabric brushed the top of his boot. It was the hem of his robe.
Soussi, she thought, putting it together. The huge shadow. The suede boot. Soussi al-Kebir. Chief of the Desert.
Hands encircled Tally's upper arms and she was hauled to her feet. The same hands ripped her camera away from her even as a dark rough fabric jerked down over her head, turning day to night.
Tally screamed as everything went black, but it wasn't the dark fabric that upset her. It was the loss of her camera. Her camera and camera bag were her world, her livelihood, her identity. Without her camera and film, she had no way to pay her bills. No way to survive.
"Give me back my camera!" she demanded, voice muffled by the coarse fabric.
"Quiet!" A harsh male voice commanded.
Suddenly she was lifted, tossed high onto the back of a horse and someone leaped behind her, settling onto the blanket and seizing the reins. Heels kicked at the horse's flanks and they were off, galloping away from the town's medina, down the narrow cobbled street into the desert beyond.
Panicked, Tally struggled in the saddle, battling to pull the fabric off her head but it'd been pulled low and it was tied somehow, anchored around her shoulders.
"Ash bhiti?" She choked in broken Barakan Arabic. What do you want?
The only response was an arm pulling her closer, holding her more firmly, the arm thickly muscled, very hard, drawing her against an even thicker, harder torso. "I have money," she added frantically, growing hotter by the second inside the dark fabric. "I'll give you money. Everything I have. Just go with me to my hotel —"
"Shhal?" he grunted, interrupting her. How much?
"Nearly five hundred American dollars."
He said nothing and Tally tried not to squirm even though the fabric was oppressive, suffocating. She had to stay calm, strike a bargain. "I can get more."
"Shhal?" he repeated. He wanted to know how much more she could get.
It was at that point Tally realized she was dealing with a mercenary. "A thousand dollars. Maybe two thousand."
"Not enough," he dismissed, and the arm around her tightened yet again.
"What do you want then?"
"For you to be quiet."
Fear made Tally silent. Fear made her hold her breath, air bottled inside. She'd read about kidnappings in the Middle East. So now instead of fighting further, she told herself not to scream, or thrash. She wouldn't do anything to provoke him, or his men, into doing something that would later be regretted.
Instead she told herself that if she stayed calm, she'd get out of this. If she stayed calm, things might turn out okay.
Not every hostage was punished. Some were released. That's what she wanted. That's what she'd work to do. Cooperate. Prove herself trustworthy. Get set free.
To help stay focused, she went over her day, thinking about the way it began, and it began like any other day. She'd loaded her camera with film, put a loose scarf over her head and set out to take her pictures.
She never traveled alone, had learned the value of hiring escorts and guides, bodyguards and translators when necessary. She knew how to slip a few coins into the right hands to get what she wanted.
In remote parts of the world, her native guides and escorts allowed her access to places she normally couldn't visit — temples, mosques, holy cemeteries, inaccessible mountain towns. She'd been warned that being a female would put her in danger, but on the contrary, people were curious and realized quickly she wasn't threatening. Even the most difficult situations she'd encountered were smoothed by slipping a few more coins into a few more hands. It wasn't bribery. It was gratitude. And who couldn't use money?
She'd thought this desert town was no different from the others she'd visited and this morning when she crouched by the medina's well, she'd heard only the bray of donkeys and bleating of goats and sheep. It was market day and the medina was already crowded, shoppers out early to beat the scorching heat.
There'd been no danger. No warning of anything bad to come. With her camera poised, she'd watched a group of children dart between stalls as veiled women shopped and elderly men smoked. She'd smiled at the antics of the boys, who were tormenting the giggling girls, and she'd just focused her lens when shouts and gunfire filled the square.
Tally wasn't a war correspondent, had never worked for any of the big papers that splashed war all over the front pages, but she'd been in dangerous situations more than once. She knew to duck and cover, and she did the moment she heard the gunfire. Duck and cover was something all children learned on the West Coast in America, earthquakes a distinct possibility for anyone living on one of the myriad of fault lines.
As she lay next to the well, she'd tried to avoid the bright red liquid running between cobblestones and that's when the desert bandit seized her.
If she hadn't looked, maybe the bandit wouldn't have noticed her...
If she hadn't moved maybe she'd be safe in town instead of being dragged into the middle of the desert.
Inside the stifling black fabric Tally struggled to breathe. She was beginning to panic despite her efforts to remain calm. Her heart already beat faster. Air came in shallow gasps.
She could feel it coming on. Her asthma. She was going to have an asthma attack.
Tally coughed, and coughed again.
The dust choked her. She couldn't see, could barely breathe, her throat squeezing closed in protest at the thick clouds of dust and swirling sand kicked up by the wind and the horse's pounding hooves.
Eyes wet with tears, Tally opened her mouth wider, gasping for breath after breath. She was panicking, knew she was panicking and panicking never helped, certainly not her asthma but it was all beyond her, the heat, the jostle of the saddle, the wind, the dust.
Reaching up, out, her hand flailed for contact, grappling with air before landing against the bandit's side. He was warm, hard, too hard, but he was the only one who could help her now. She clung convulsively to the fabric of his robe, tugged on it, hand twisting as frantically as her lungs squeezed.
One, two, she tugged violently on the fabric, her hand twisting in, out, pulling down, against the body, anything to express her panic, her desperation.
Tair felt the hand grappling with his shirt, felt the wild frantic motion and then felt her go slack, hand falling away limply.
He whistled to his men even as he reined his horse, drawing to a dramatic pawing stop.
Tair threw the fabric covering off the foreign woman captured in the town square.
She was limp and nearly blue.
He lifted her up in one arm, turned her cheek toward him, listened for air and heard nothing.
Had he killed her?
Tipping her head back, he covered her mouth with his own, pinched her nose closed, blowing air into her lungs, forcing warm air where there had been none.
His men circled him on their horses forming a protective barrier, although they should be safe here. This was his land. His people. His home. But things happened. They knew. He knew.
He felt their silence now, the stillness, the awareness. They wouldn't judge him, they wouldn't dream of it. He was their lord, their leader, but no one wanted a death on his hands. Especially not a foreign woman.
Much less a young foreign woman.
Not when Ouaha still fought for full independence. Not when politics and power hung in delicate balance.
He covered her mouth again, forcing air through her once more, narrowed gaze fixed on her chest, watching her small rib cage rise. Come on, he silently willed, come on, Woman, breathe.
And he forced another breath into her, and another silent command. You will breathe. You will live.
She sputtered. Coughed. Her lashes fluttered, lifted, eyes opening.
Grimly Tair stared down into her face, the pallor giving way to the slightest hint of pink.
Alhumdulillah, he silently muttered. Thanks be to God. He might not be a good man, or a nice man, but he didn't enjoy killing women.
Her eyes were the palest brown-green, not one color or the other and although her expression was cloudy, unfocused, the color itself was remarkable, the color of a forest glen at dawn, the forest he once knew as a boy when visiting his mother's people in England.
Her brows suddenly pulled, her entire face tightening, constricting. She wheezed. And wheezed again, lips pursing, eyes fixed on him, widening, eyes filled with alarm.
Her hand lifted, touched her mouth, fingers curving as if to make a shape. Again she put her hand to her mouth, fingers squeezing. "Haler."
He shook his head, impatient, not understanding, seeing the pink in her skin fade, the pallor return. She wasn't getting air. She wasn't breathing again.
Her eyes, wide, frightened, held his and her fear cut him. She was hurt and in pain and he was doing this to her.
"What do you need?" he demanded, switching to English even as he lightly slapped her cheek, trying to get her to focus, communicate. What was wrong? Why couldn't she breathe?
Her fingers merely curled, reminding him of the letter C from the Western alphabet as she gasped, and he blocked out her frantic gasps of air studying her fingers instead. And then suddenly he knew. Asthma.
"You have asthma," he said. He was gratified to see her nod. "Where is your inhaler?"
He lifted a hand, gestured, signaling he wanted it. The bag was handed over immediately.
Tair unzipped the top, rifled through, found the inhaler in a small interior side pocket and shook it before putting it to her mouth. Her hand reached up, released the aerosol, letting it flood her lungs.
Still holding her in the crook of his arm he watched her take another hit, saw her chest rise and fall more slowly, naturally, saw that she was breathing more deeply and he felt a measure of relief. She lived. He hadn't killed her. Good.
Hard to explain a dead Western woman to the authorities. Minutes later she stirred again.
Tally didn't know at exactly what moment she realized she was lying in the barbarian's arms, her legs over his, her body in his lap, but once she knew where she was, and how he held her, she jerked upright.
She wrenched free, attempted to jump from the horse but instead fell to the ground, tumbling in a heap at everyone's feet.
She groaned inwardly, thinking she was getting too old for dramatic leaps and falls. Tally rose, straightening her white cotton shirt and brushing her khaki trousers smooth. "Who are you?" she demanded.
The man on the horse adjusted his headcovering, shifting the dark fabric to conceal all of his face but his eyes and bridge of nose. Face covered, he just looked at her, as did the others, and there were about a half dozen of them altogether.