Lost to the Desert Warrior(3)

By: Sarah Morgan

 ‘How can you stop it? Hassan is at his most dangerous when he’s afraid and he’s terrified of Raz Al Zahki. He won’t even allow his name to be spoken in the city. But everyone does speak it, of course. Especially the women. I’ve been listening.’

 ‘You’ve been to the souk again? Do you have no sense of danger?’

 Yasmin ignored her and her voice was an awed whisper. ‘They say his heart is frozen into ice and only the right woman can melt it. It’s a bit like the legend of the Sword in the Stone you read me when I was little.’

 ‘Oh, Yasmin, grow up! A man’s heart cannot be frozen into ice unless he finds himself lost in Antarctica with insufficient equipment. A heart is responsible for pumping blood around the body. It cannot be “frozen” or “broken”.’ Exasperated, Layla wondered how two sisters could be so different. Their experience was the same, except that Layla had protected Yasmin from the worst of her father’s actions. ‘This isn’t legend, this is real. Stop romanticising everything.’

 ‘They think he will come.’ This time there was an undertone of excitement in her sister’s voice. ‘He has been playing a waiting game while our father and Hassan plotted. With our father dead, he has to have a plan for taking up his rightful place as Sheikh. Hassan is terrified. The council is terrified. They have extra guards on the doors at night. They’ve sent patrols into the desert, although goodness knows why because everyone knows Raz Al Zahki knows the desert better than anyone. No one is sleeping because they’re afraid he might enter the Citadel at night and murder them in their beds. Frankly, I wish he’d just get on with it. If I bumped into him in the dark I’d show him the way.’

 Layla covered her sister’s lips with her fingers. ‘You need to be careful what you say.’

 ‘Why? What else can they do to me? They’re splitting us up! I’m going to America and you’re going to marry Hassan. How much worse can it get?’

 ‘I’m not marrying Hassan.’ Layla made her decision. ‘I’m not going to let that happen.’

 ‘How can you stop it? Hassan can only be the next ruler if he marries you. That’s a pretty powerful motivation.’

 ‘Then he mustn’t marry me.’

 Yasmin looked at her with pity. ‘He is going to make you.’

 ‘If he can’t find me, he can’t make me.’ Not daring to give too much thought to what she was about to do, Layla sprinted to her father’s dressing room and removed a couple of robes. She thrust one at her sister. ‘Put this on. Cover your hair and as much of your face as you can. Wait here for me behind the curtain until I come and fetch you. I need to get something from the library before we leave.’

 ‘The library? How can you think of books right now?’

 ‘Because a book can be many things—a friend, an escape, a teacher—’ Layla broke off and hoped her sister didn’t notice her high colour. ‘Never mind. The important thing is that we’re going away from here. It will be like the game of Hide we played as children.’ She caught her sister’s horrified glance and wished she hadn’t used that reference. Both of them knew what that game had really meant. She changed the subject quickly. ‘Those horses you love so much—can you actually ride one if you have to?’

 ‘Of course!’

 Her sister’s hesitation was so brief Layla told herself she’d imagined it.

 ‘And I’ve read extensively on the theory of riding and the history of the Arabian horse, so between us I’m sure we’ll be fine.’ She hoped she sounded more convincing than she felt. ‘We’ll take the back route to the stables and ride into the desert from there.’

 ‘The desert? Why are we riding into the desert?’

 Layla felt her mouth move even though her brain was telling her this was a terrible idea. ‘We’re going to find Raz Al Zahki.’

 * * *

 The wind blew across the desert, bringing with it whispers of the Sheikh’s death.

 Raz Al Zahki stood at the edge of the camp and stared into the darkness of the night. ‘Is it truth or rumour?’

 ‘Truth.’ Salem stood next to him, shoulder to shoulder. ‘It’s been confirmed by more than one source.’

 ‘Then it is time.’ Raz had learned long before to keep his feelings buried, and he kept them buried now, but he felt the familiar ache of tension across his shoulders. ‘We leave for the city tonight.’