This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and events are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2013 D.S. Taylor
All rights reserved.
For Nora & Vourneen.
There is such a thing as love.
I remember the day I first realised it, so long ago that the places and dates have faded from memory. What remains now are a few blurry images, faint and distorted, but real. It was a wedding. Vourneen’s wedding. She stood beside the ‘hairy man’ as my younger self named him and in her eyes I could see it.
Vourneen has left us now, but that love is still there, always there, in his eyes, his words … in the way he held her hand. Time passes, people change, but love never dies.
And if Vourneen was love, then Nora
was life. Sassy, fun, caring, life … just life. That such things are gone from her now feels so wrong. Gone, but never forgotten … never. Nora was the first to read this book, the very first, fitting then that she should be the first name within its cover.
This one’s for you, Nora.
She was born a woman, and her father had yet to forgive her for that. A son had been promised by the priests of
, a son to tend his flocks and continue his line. But despite it all, he was good to the child and in the end it was he that had named her, named her in the old tongue that few still uttered. Shiri, ‘
or so the village elders had said. He deemed the name appropriate, complaining that since her arrival, Amita kept him awake at night, not in the way she used to, but by singing to the babe ‘till the small hours of the morning.
village of Yaham was a very simple place. A daub and wattle hamlet, lost in the mountains, some thirty miles from the famed
Way; the main thoroughfare between the great Empire of Pharaoh to the south and his vassals of northern Palestine. As such, it had ever remained forgotten and undisturbed by the troubles and wars of the outside world.
A great and ancient well lay at its centre and over time the village had grown up about it; t
he village … hardly even that, a dozen shacks, little more. In troubled times and war-torn lands, hidden amidst the mountains as it was, Yaham was as good a place as any for a maiden to pass her youth. Like everyone else, Shiri remembered the day Yaham awoke. She remembered the day the soldiers came.
“Silent as a ghost,” her father whispered with a finger to his lips. She’d ducked into the alley and hid behind a barrel as the first ranks drew up before the great well. She watched unseen as her father stood before them. Staff in hand and stern of face, he stood unafraid and demanded, “What business do men under arms have in Yaham?”
But these were men loyal to the Shepherd King and came bringing tidings and bread. Shiri marvelled at their mighty steeds and frightening chariots, smiled and laughed with the other children as the soldiers went amongst them waving pretty banners and coloured flags. To her surprise the strangers were clean-shaven and smelled not of sweat and stale manure like normal folk, but horses and leather. She’d never before seen the like. But her father had. He alone remained stern and unmoved while the townsfolk gathered round and cheered as the visitors displayed their skill with sword and bow.
They shot at straw targets to the adulation of Yaham’s menfolk and the admiring glances of its women. They armed the boys of the village with wooden swords and fought mock battles with them. And to the men, they offered blades of bronze, encouraging them to hack at a wooden dummy that wore a blue crown.
On their third and final day in Yaham they’d stood in the village centre, by the great well, and there they spoke. “Yaham,” they said, “has a simple choice; freedom or bondage. You must declare for good King Jacobaam, or sit idle, waiting for Pharaoh to come and offer you the point of his sword. You must unite and throw back the Gyptos, unite and fight for freedom.”
Shiri didn’t hear that part. Her father had caught her in the neighbour’s backyard. She’d taken possession of one of the soldier’s wooden swords and had been causing mischief, as was her talent. He’d scolded her for it before bringing her to the square to listen to them speak of great battles and preach of war and glory.
At first, Shiri had thought little of their talk, but then a different soldier stepped forward. He spoke of ‘The Beautiful One,’ and she found herself straining to hear. “Hair, red as the sunrise. Eyes, blue as the sky. Skin, pale as the stars. And naught but a shepherd girl like your wives, like your daughters!” The soldier pointed at her then, and she felt suddenly nervous.
He was handsome.
Someone tugged at her arm and a little irritated she glanced back. Young Ethan, a short pudgy lad with big guileless eyes and an ever present smile, met her gaze. “That one’s a prince,” he said.
Shiri snorted. Having seen just twelve summers, Ethan was almost three years her junior, and still just a child. He was constantly following her around talking nonsense. She counted herself old enough to have more sense than the youngling. She rolled her eyes, and adopted imperious tones. “Don’t be stupid, Ethan, princes wear crowns and rings and bracelets of gold.” She might not know what gold looked like but she knew the soldier didn’t wear any.
Ethan crossed his arms in indignation and she turned back in time to see his ‘prince’ marching back and forth before the crowd, his arms gesticulating, as he worked them. “The Governor of Kadesh demanded her for his bed!” He slammed closed fist against open palm and then for some reason he paused. Shiri pushed a little closer and for the briefest instant imagined she saw his eyes water.
Before she could confirm what she’d seen, he’d regained himself and resumed with a flurry of passion. “Her husband, a simple man, honest and proud like the men of Yaham,” – that received a cheer – “refused to yield. He raised an army and that army named him, ‘the Shepherd King.’ Together they fought for her, together they fought for justice and freedom and against all odds, they won! Won and reclaimed his love from the evil governor!”
Shiri felt the men about her jostle and cheer at the soldier’s words, but something didn’t feel right. She scrunched her face and glanced questioningly at her father. It was a different tale to the one he had told. He said the Beautiful One had died. He said the Shepherd King had not been able to protect her. He said her head was adorning a spike when King Jacobaam finally reclaimed her.
All at once, the handsome soldier stepped forward and was walking amongst them. The small crowd parted before him. He paused before Shiri. She blushed, sucked in her lower lip and looked to her feet. She felt her father place a hand on her shoulder as he held the man’s gaze almost threateningly. The soldier smiled and moved off proclaiming, “The forces of darkness are massing! Will the men of Yaham stand by while the Gyptos take their daughters and ravage their wives? Will they bend their knees and accept bondage like their Habiru brothers in Egypt?” He raised his voice, “Or will they FIGHT!?”
They erupted with cheers at that, crowding about him. Shiri cheered too. “Pharaoh is coming, like it or not, and the Shepherd King needs men of noble heart and strong arm to rise up and say ‘no!’”
“NO!” they roared, Shiri louder than many.
“Who will stand up and fight with him?” The throng was bustling this way and that, someone slammed into her from behind and she briefly lost her feet. Her father shoved the man away with a curse and that strong protective hand returned to her shoulder. “I will!” someone shouted, “And I!” roared another. The excitement was a thing half alive. “Who will fight for bread? Who will fight for freedom?” The handsome soldier had them, he had them all.
All save one at any rate.
heard such talk before. Shiri’s father pulled her away before the speech was done. She followed reluctantly, pestering him with questions all the way to their cottage. “What was it like to be a soldier?”
He didn’t answer, he never answered
“Was she really as beautiful as they say?”
“Doubtless she’d a nice arse.”
“Will you go to fight for the Shepherd King, Father?”
He grunted at that. “Let the fools fight for the shade of Jacobaam’s woman, I will stay here with mine. She breathes yet and I mean to keep it that way.”
Shiri pondered that for a moment. Her father was strong, the best fighter in the village. Everyone said so. He had an old war-sword above the fireplace, everyone knew that too. He had a shield and battered halfhelm as well, less knew that. They were speckled with rust and scarred
from battle, he cared little for them. But the sword was gleaming and sharp still. He always kept it sharp. And oft as not he had it so well oiled that her mother would joke of using it as a looking glass.
He even had a name for it
A strange name by all accounts and
his wife mocked him mercilessly about it. Such jests did not sit well with him. “Lady’s kiss is no matter to jest about,” or so he liked to say. Once or twice he’d even declared the blade was cursed. He would grow silent then ... brooding ... remembering. Shiri had asked her mother what he was remembering, little point in asking her father. Even then, “Lady has kissed many men,” was all the answer she could get.
Shiri nodded to herself as she thought on it. Aye, it seemed obvious enough. “But if
take Lady and fight with the Shepherd King, we will win. We will win freedom! If you don’t go they might ... they might lose.”
“You eat whenever you want to eat, what more freedom need you?” He paused and looked down at her. The child herself was convinced otherwise, but as far as he could tell, the village had no daughter more beautiful than his. Mayhap he was biased, but then that soldier had clearly been of similar opinion. Well enough that he’d kept his hands to himself and his cock in his breeches or good King Jacobaam would be short a sword.
Amita had given him no other child and true enough, Shiri was not a son, but perhaps that was not so bad after all. She was a small, wiry thing, stubborn and wilful at the best of times, but she knew how to work and rarely shirked her chores. The girl believed one tooth to be a little crooked and as a result she was slow to smile, but when those smiles did come they lit up his world.
He grinned as he looked down at her. She had her mother’s eyes, wide and brown like ... like new tilled earth. A man of learning might have described them better, but it was the highest praise this old field hand could give. Her hair, though tangled and matted was long and dark, and despite Amita’s attempts to tie it back, it ever ended up billowing unrestrained about her shoulders. If she’d been born to some noble house, it would have been luscious and well tended. It would have been decorated with golden mesh and be the talk of princes. But princes were not this one’s fate.
He spat on a rag and used it to wipe some of the grime from her face. Despite the girl’s complaints, he always did thusly before presenting her to her mother. He stared at her a moment longer before playfully brushing his fist against her chin, “The Beautiful One could not have been so much more than this.” Shiri rolled her eyes and placed her hands on her hips in that challenging manner he knew so well, but for once did not call him on the lie.
They entered the shack and Shiri looked on as he grabbed her mother about the waist and pulled her to him. Amita laughed somewhat cautiously. “You’re not going then?” His answer was to kiss her lustily. It was the answer she’d been hoping for. She melted into his arms before his hands boldly sought to discover what she hid beneath her skirts. It was not his subtlety that had won her.
Her mother laughed a second time, a better laugh this time. She was ever laughing. She pushed him away, straightening her frock in an attempt to maintain some form of dignity in front of her daughter. Still, she must have found something to like in her husband’s methods, for on the morrow Shiri noted that the door to their bedchamber remained shut well past dawn.