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Above the vast Egyptian desert the midnight sky reflected its own eternal emptiness. This was the High Desert. Its uncharted surface offered convenient oblivion for those who sought to hide in it.
Squatting sullenly at the base of a sand dune, the slave traders' encampment was peopled by such fugitives. It was a small compound: a string of camels, a half-dozen tents set around afire, a score of lidless crates piled within reach of the camp fire's illumination.
Inspecting the contents of these crates were several dozen men. Some were obviously merchants who, having come into the desert from towns miles away, were here to acquire the black market goods being offered. The merchants were Arabs, relative newcomers to Egypt--fourteen centuries being relative in this ancient land. The others--heavily veiled even now, at night--were Tuareks, of Coptic origin, the true descendants of the ancient Egyptians. They were the sellers. And, sitting just beyond the reach of the firelight, was the rarest and most precious offering among merchandise rife with the unique and invaluable: a young, blond Englishwoman.
The pale and proud girl faced her captors, making no effort to hide her disdainful glare. When first snatched from the Cairo market four days before, fear had paralyzed her usually agile intelligence, terror had crippled her spirit with the certainty that soon she would become the plaything of some cruel desert sheik.
But now four days had passed and no desert prince had come for her. Indeed, no one came near her at all, and the sweet, tender flower of womanhood found that terror, numbed by the potent drink her captors forced upon her, had given way to... to...
Desdemona Carlisle slouched tipsily against a pile of Persian rugs, gravely considering the word. It seemed too cavalier for her situation, but she couldn't claim she felt exactly terrorized anymore. She stuck a finger under the wretched chadar, the face veil her captors insisted she wear at all times, and scratched.
The young lady, courageous and valiant, was impatient to confront her fate.
But first, thought Desdemona, the young lady would have another swig of the unique, and not altogether unpalatable, milky beverage that the sullen-looking boy, Rabi, spent most of his free time encouraging her to imbibe.
Indeed, other than sitting about being bored--impatient, penning entries in an imaginary diary, and sipping this stuff--there wasn't much to do. The fake papyrus scroll Rabi had given her as a means of keeping her occupied was fascinating, yes, but a bit too... absorbing...to be studied properly here and now. It was more suitable reading for a private setting.
She was sure she could have found other interesting things in the crates heaped around camp. She had glimpsed glints of shining metal, colored stone, shapes and figurines. But every time she ventured near the crates, her guards barked at her; every time she tried to run away, they fetched her back--with increasing ill grace--and every time she tried to hold a civil conversation, they stared at her in mute contempt.
The most obvious explanation for their aloofness, she concluded, was that her purity was being safeguarded to ensure she would command a greater price on the auction block. She shivered and groped around in the sand for her tin cup.
She found it and looked up. Rabi was staring at her. As soon as he noted the direction of her gaze, he turned and slunk away like a cadaverous Anubis puppy. Wise lad, she thought darkly.
It had been Rabi who'd kidnapped her. One minute she'd been examining a nice, authentic-looking canopic jar and the next she was being gagged with some hideous cloth, her head stuffed in an equally vile sack, and she'd been flung over a bony shoulder. A moment later he'd thrown her atop what--judging from the smell and lumps--could only be a camel. She'd spent an entire day jolting about in front of him, sweating beneath the heavy sack covering her. Once they'd arrived, he had plopped her on her feet for her unveiling and, his young voice flush with the pride of conquest, hailed the camp. Then, with a spectacular flourish, he'd snapped the sack--and her headdress--off.
Confused, frightened, and seasick from the rocking camel ride, she had squinted into the sudden blinding light, peering at the silent, shadowy faces crowding around her. Someone said something that sounded suspiciously like the Arabic equivalent of "Uh-oh." In a flurry of motion, the men had snatched their burkos in front of their faces. She'd not seen an unveiled man since.
Soon after, they'd taken Rabi aside and given him the thrashing of his young life. She assumed it was because he had attempted to assert his masculine rights of ownership over her. Her mouth twined at the thought. A fifteen-year-old boy-child was not her idea of--What ever was she thinking about?
She lifted her tin cup to her lips and sipped nothing. Drat. It was empty.
"Hey, Rabi!" she called. "I say, I could do with a spot more of that what-have-you!" As if by magic, the sound of her voice cut off all conversation in the camp. Every man, especially the town merchants, turned and stared at her. Within five minutes the Arabs had fled, leaving her alone with her veiled captors. They glared at her, looking decidedly unhappy.
"Well? I'm sorry but they certainly weren't going to buy me. They couldn't even afford your fake faience. Not a sheik in the lot, I'd wager," she said with alcohol-imbued logic. Indeed, the departed men had looked more like middle-age--and none too prosperous--businessmen than proper white slavers. She glanced about, trying to determine where they'd gone and if she could go with. Maybe she had this white slave thing all wrong. Maybe she...
It was then that she saw him.
Wind and darkness coalesced in the distance. A rider so much a part of his steed that he seemed more centaur than man crested the moon-silvered edge of a dune. His cape billowed in the wind like great black wings. Closer he sped, myth embodied, galloping across the midnight-shrouded sands, racing toward her.