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The Sword & the Sheath
By Bonnie Vanak
Dorchester PublishingCopyright © 2007 Bonnie Vanak
All right reserved.
Chapter OneEastern Desert, Egypt, 1903
He could not make her cry. Not her. Fatima refused to weep before the mighty heir to the Khamsin's desert throne. Not from his taunts or from his arrogance.
"You can't be sheikh and that is final," Tarik stated.
"I can too be sheikh," the ten-year-old Fatima blurted. She glanced at her twin brother, signaling for help.
Asad's large, expressive green eyes-the same color as hers-blinked. He shrugged. "Let her, Tarik."
"Never. A girl cannot be sheikh. That's my final word."
At eleven, the only son of Jabari bin Tarik Hassid radiated confidence. His mother, Elizabeth, said he could "charm the wool off a sheep." Bold and intrepid, Tarik always thought of the best places to hide, the most daring adventures to have. Unlike Fatima's shyer, more timid twin, he never hesitated to climb the rocky crags surrounding their home and jump, pretending to be a falcon. Or, what Fatima liked best: sneaking into the warrior exercise grounds to spy on the men training for battle. Fatima adored Tarik's daring. She hated his stubbornness.
"Let me be sheikh. It's my turn," she put in.
Tarik shook his shoulder-length blond hair. "Girls can never be sheikh-noreven Khamsin warriors of the wind."
"I can too be a warrior."
Tarik let loose an adult-sounding snort of derision. "Women cook and weave and have babies. Not fight."
The twins and Tarik played amidst the flat, grayish sand of Egypt's imposing Arabian Desert. The Khamsin camp sprawled across a sandy plateau, row upon row of black goat hair tents. Tall date palms and sprawling acacia trees provided slim shade; towering mountains of rock sheltered the valley on either side.
Fatima couldn't imagine a better place to live. Not even her grandfather's mansion in England compared to this wide desert that she adored. Who wanted the stuffy protection of a big house when you could have crackling bonfires at night, and her father's stories to share by them? Often she'd ride her mare, turn her head up to burning yellow sun and just gaze. At a bird soaring across the piercing blue sky. At how sunsets cast the towering cliffs in brilliant shades of sienna. At all the desert's beauty.
Fatima loved exploring hiding places in the rocks with her brother Asad and his best friend, Tarik, and Tarik's closest cousin, Muhammad. But on his eleventh birthday, Tarik began evading her. He'd told Asad she was too slow. Destined to become Tarik's Guardian of the Ages-his bodyguard-Asad had sided with his friend, not Fatima.
Such rejection stung. In all Fatima's ten years, Asad had never left her side. But now he did. Ignoring her, Tarik, Asad and Muhammad often scampered off, leaving Fatima behind. Sometimes they'd split up, using Muhammad as a decoy while Tarik and Asad sped off in a different direction.
But determination loaned her stealth and speed, and she chased them relentlessly. Today, after hearing Muhammad was sick, she'd easily caught up with them and decided to change tactics. She'd suggested a new game: slave girl.
Tarik liked the attention she gave him, pretending to serve him grapes, bowing in admiration. He did make a handsome sheikh, she reluctantly admitted. He had his father's eyes, as fierce and intensely black as the sheikh's. And he had his father's regal bearing and dignified carriage that echoed his clan symbol, the proud falcon.
Other children teased Tarik about what he inherited from his American-born mother, Elizabeth. They called him "The White Falcon" because of his lighter skin and wheat-colored hair.
But Fatima privately admired his unusual looks, and she publicly defended Tarik. When the name-calling first started, she had dramatically spread her arms and announced in a solemn voice that the spirit of his namesake, the great Tarik the Warrior Sheikh, would send snakes into their beds in retaliation. The Khamsin children had nervously peeped under their covers and stopped calling Tarik names. She, Asad and Tarik had howled for hours.
Fatima liked Tarik. That was, when he wasn't being as stubborn as a donkey about what mattered most to her.
"All right. You be sheikh. Instead of a slave girl, let me be a warrior and defend you," she offered.
Tarik's thin chest heaved with laughter. "Defend me?" His ebony eyes sparkled with good humor. "Don't be so silly." Fingers rapping on his chin, he considered: "You serve me well enough. Perhaps I will allow you to be my wife. I would even let you kiss me."
Such a generous offer! Fatima pursed her lips as if he offered her a lemon to suck. The sheikh's son sprang forward. Two warm lips brushed hers, like a butterfly landing gently on her mouth. Fatima hovered a minute, enchanted, then recoiled.
"Eeeeww! What'd you do that for?" She scrubbed her mouth with an angry fist.
"You looked like you wanted a kiss," Tarik protested.
Fatima started to object when her vision blurred. Oh God, please, not again! Dizziness gripped her. Tarik and Asad became fuzzy images in white skullcaps, indigo trousers, cream-colored kamis shirts and short indigo jubbes. Pressing her hands to her spinning head, she surrendered to the Sight.
She lay on silken sheets beside Tarik, a man grown. He was longer and broader than the skinny boy. Bare chested, sheet tugged up to his lean waist, he stared at Fatima with an intense look she'd seen her father give her mother. In the dream, Tarik took her into his arms and kissed her. Then he said in a deep voice, "Mine. You are now mine, Fatima. Forever."
Fatima's eyes flew open. Her mouth wobbled. As always after a vision, she felt disoriented and drained.
They looked at her; Asad with alarm, Tarik with concern. The sheikh's son placed steadying hands on her shoulders. He led her to a boulder, helped her sit. Asad joined them, sliding a comforting arm about her waist.
A gift, her mother called it.
A nightmare, she had replied.
"Tima, did you have another vision? Was it very bad this time?" Tarik asked, holding her hand.
His gentle concern only made it worse. She suppressed a shiver. He must never know. Ever.
"Yes," she snagged, pushing aside his hand and springing to her feet. "I had a nightmare of what your poor wife will have to suffer, kissing your she-camel lips."
Shock then anger filled his dark eyes. Tarik stood up, scowling. "I do not have she-camel lips!"
Jumping off the rock, Asad peered at his friend's mouth. "Well, Tarik, your bottom lip is large like a she-camel's."
Tarik silenced him with a scathing look. His slight shoulders drew back with pride. "It is an honor being the sheikh's wife and having the privilege of kissing me."
She glared. "I'd rather kiss a stinky goat. I want to be a warrior. I could even be your Guardian of the Ages."
"But Tima, I'm supposed to be his Guardian of the Ages," Asad protested.
"Well, two Guardians are better than one. You can watch his left side and I'll watch his right," she reasoned. She raced to a nearby thorn tree to pick up a dead branch as a sword. She waved it in the air.
An odd prickling raised gooseflesh on her arms. She heard herself say in a faraway voice, "You need me as your Guardian, son of Jabari bin Tarik Hassid. You must not die as your mother's babies did."
Blinking, she focused on their shocked faces. Anger twisted Asad's features. Tarik looked wounded. Even though her Sight prompted the words, she felt guilty mentioning the grievous topic. Tarik's mother had lost five babies after his birth, and before his sister Nadia was born four years ago. His parents still mourned their deaths.
"That was mean, Tima," Asad lectured.
Flustered, she started to apologize then stopped. Words had power. So did her Sight. Destiny called her to a greater purpose than simply being a girl. If this were a gift, why couldn't she use it to become Tarik's Guardian? Who better to protect him? Respectful of her Sight, Tarik would relent.
In a slightly pleading voice, she stated her case. Tarik and Asad exchanged glances. Her heart sank.
"My Guardian of the Ages is my loyal defender who would give his life for me," Tarik stated quietly. "He is the tribe's fiercest fighter. True, you have the gift of visions, Tima. But you could never be my Guardian because you are a girl. Girls don't fight." His voice held a deeper timbre, as if he had just taken a step into manhood.
Fatima drew away from the hard resolve in his dark eyes, then remembered. She was the daughter of Ramses bin Asad Sharif, the fiercest of all the Khamsin warriors. And like her father, she didn't fly from a challenge.
"I can protect you better than Asad. I'm a better warrior."
"You will never be a warrior of the wind," Tarik replied.
The truth stung so grievously, he became a red haze in her vision. "I could, too! And I'll prove it!"
Fatima grabbed hold of Tarik's silky golden curls and yanked. As he reached up with a balled fist to swing, Fatima ducked and dove to the sand with feline grace. She rolled, her left foot shot out and hooked around Tarik's ankle and pulled. He tumbled. She'd seen her father perform the move while spying on him practicing.
He lay on the sand and she jumped on his stomach. Tarik grunted with surprise.
"Give in," she panted, capturing his arms with her hands and pressing them against the ground. He scowled and struggled, but her weight pinned him. Like her brother, Fatima was taller and heavier than Tarik.
"Fatima, stop it," Asad snapped. Fatima ignored her twin and dug her heels into Tarik's sides.
"Surrender, infidel. Admit defeat," she ordered.
The horrified shock in her father's voice gave her pause. With a guilty start she glanced up to see Ramses approach, accompanied by a tall, handsome man clad in an indigo binish. Oh no. The sheikh, Jabari, Tarik's father! Fatima turned her gaze back to her prisoner, but caught the gleam in his eyes too late. The blow came sharply, stinging as it landed squarely on her lower lip.
Fatima fell away, sprawling on the ground. Pain filled her mouth. She touched her bottom lip, drew away scarlet fingertips. To her horror, tears spilled down her cheeks. Tarik struggled to his feet with a look of intense satisfaction.
"Tarik!" The shock in the Khamsin sheikh's voice was greater than her father's.
"She jumped on me like a caracal. Fatima should learn the consequences of attacking a Khamsin warrior," Tarik snarled.
"And you are not a Khamsin warrior yet. You need to treat her with the respect a Khamsin maiden is due. Do you forget yourself?" his father asked. His quiet voice was laced with command.
Tarik gulped. Fatima knew Tarik worshiped his father and feared him a little, as most Khamsin children did. Everyone but her. Jabari had a soft spot for her, as Fatima had been the only girl among the two close-knit families for the longest time.
She felt a warm hand squeeze her palm, and looked up at her father's somber face as he pulled her upright.
"Tarik, apologize now to Fatima," Jabari ordered.
Tarik shuffled his feet and muttered, "I'm sorry." Mutiny glittered in his dark eyes. He was not sorry. Not one little bit.
"Now go get the camel crop," the sheikh added sternly.
Tarik's tanned face blanched. He swallowed hard, large black eyes widening. Suddenly he went from swaggering braggart to little boy; his brows furrowed into a pleading look. Jabari's stony expression gave no quarter. Resolutely, Tarik marched off in the direction of his tent.
Fatima felt alarmed. The sheikh had never been so angry. She tugged at his indigo binish. "Please, sire-please do not punish him. It was my fault. I started it. I did."
Jabari's black-bearded mouth softened into a smile. He squatted down. "My dear Fatima, it does not matter. Tarik needs to learn that it is not permissible to hit women. Khamsin women should be protected, loved and respected. As long as I am sheikh, and Tarik after me, such abuse will not be tolerated." Anger tightened his face as his gaze settled on her cut lip. She drew back. Jabari smiled, opening his arms.
"Stop crying. Come give your uncle Jabari a big hug. How long has it been since you hugged me?"
Relieved that he was not angry, she stepped into his embrace. Jabari hugged her. She inhaled the clean, spicy, masculine scent of him, so much like her own father's. He released her and stood.
"She is very much your daughter, Ramses," he said, chuckling, and she was glad to see his good humor restored.
But her father did not smile. He merely looked at her sternly. "Too much," he muttered.
Tarik returned, carrying the long camel crop. He walked straight and tall. Without flinching, he handed the stick to his father with a solemn look. Fatima felt a sudden, unexpected spurt of pride.
"I am ready for my punishment, Father," he said quietly. "What I did was wrong. I should never have hit Fatima." Approval shone in the sheikh's dark gaze, but Tarik stole a sly glance at Fatima. "You were correct, Father. Khamsin women should never be hit. They should be protected and cherished, for they are the weaker sex. They can't fight, ride into battle or become warriors of the wind."
Choked laughter rumbled from Asad. Fatima glared at her twin. Tarik had had the final word, after all.
"Come, Tarik," Jabari said firmly, but the hand he laid upon his son's shoulder seemed steady, not steely.
As the sheikh hauled his son toward the warrior training ground, Fatima muttered, "I hope he beats your bottom raw."
Asad scowled. "Oh, our sheikh will. Tarik's never gotten a beating before. And it's all your fault. You should have left instead of fighting him."
Deeply upset, Fatima drew back. Her twin had never directly sided against her. Never.
"Quiet, Asad," her father said sternly. "Tarik should not have hit her. It is against the Khamsin code of honor."
"Papa, are you going to punish me like Uncle Jabari is doing to Tarik?" Fatima asked.
Her father hunkered down. He touched her cut lip. Fatima winced, although his touch was absolutely gentle. "Sweetheart, I think you have been punished enough."
"Just because you're a girl," Asad muttered.
That remark, made under his breath, rankled her pride. "I can take it. I'm as tough as any boy," she declared. She looked hopefully into her father's frowning face. "Should I get the camel crop?"
Her father scratched his short-trimmed beard. "No, Fatima. I wish to talk with you. Asad, return to the tent."
She watched her brother stride off, his hair glistening blue-black in the sun. Grief pinched her chest. Once Asad had been her best friend. No longer. Tarik had taken her place.
She headed for a large, flat-surfaced boulder and plunked herself down on it. Her lower lip trembled as she struggled to contain tears of betrayal. She looked up into her father's wise amber eyes. He touched her hand.
"Asad doesn't like me anymore, Papa. Why?" she whispered.
"That is not so, sweetheart. He is merely growing up. Do not begrudge Tarik his company-he needs his friend right now. It is a sore thing to his pride when a son receives punishment from his father."
Swallowing past a lump clogging her throat, Fatima looked away. "Asad is always with Tarik. He never wants to be with me."
"It is only natural. Asad is my firstborn son," he reminded her gently. "He is destined to be Tarik's Guardian of the Ages, just as I am Guardian to his father. When Asad turns thirteen ..."
Fatima waved a hand. "I know, I know. He will receive the initiation of manhood and take the Guardian oath to guard Tarik with his life and be tattooed with the falcon, the mark of Tarik's house, upon his right arm. Asad talks of nothing else all day. I'm so tired of it!"
"Fatima, you must accept it, just as you must accept the fact that Tarik will become our sheikh. What you did to Tarik was wrong. You shamed him."
"But, Papa, I can beat him! Tarik teased me. He said I am weak just because I am a girl. And I have to marry and learn to cook and have babies and I can never be a warrior."
Ramses sighed deeply. "Fatima, he is correct. There is no place for a woman warrior in our tribe. It is everything against our laws, our way of life."
"But you taught me how to fight!"
"I should not have," he muttered. "It is my fault."
A pout puckered her mouth. "It's not fair. I hate being left out just because I'm a girl."
"You are growing up quickly, my beloved daughter. I talked with your mother. You need to start spending more time with girls. I forbid you to follow after Tarik and Asad."
Stung, Fatima stared. If he had beaten her with the camel crop, he could not have hurt her more. "Please, Papa, I am sorry. I will not hit Tarik ever again. I promise. I promise."
Usually her pleas softened her father. This time, his face was set in rock. His look frightened her with its intensity. He would not give in.
"It isn't fair," she whispered. "Why can't I be a warrior of the wind like you? I want to be like you, Papa."
Excerpted from The Sword & the Sheath by Bonnie Vanak Copyright © 2007 by Bonnie Vanak. Excerpted by permission.
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