The Price of Memory
3020 T.A. Khand
Tamar’s side ached from laughing deep in her belly.
Raziya sunk her hands into the dark dough, a smile still playing on lips that had entertained the women with a tale of the foolish ways of men folk. Baako popped her baby thumb out of her mouth as she nestled in her mother Keisha’s arms and begged Raziya for a retelling.
“Another time, little one,” Raziya said. “We have supper to finish. Your papa has called a feast tonight.”
“For the squint-eyed men?”
“Yes, but do not call them that. They are mighty warriors from the North. How would you like it if they called you dirt-skinned?”
“I’m brown,” Baako sulked. “Tamar’s black,” she pointed, and the women laughed. Tamar took the child’s hand and rubbed it over her cheek, earning a giggle from Baako.
Raziya rose with a grunt. “I’m getting old!” She dusted off floury hands before reaching up to tie her scarf more securely over the tight, stubby knots of her hair.
Raziya was the youngest of the women at only sixteen floods. Keisha, with a son nearly of the same age, huffed. “Tell me that after you’ve born five children, Raziya.”
Tamar looked away, pulling the wooden bowl of beans she was sorting closer, as if to afford some small protection against her thoughts. She had been married six floods, and at twenty-three, it was expected she have a brood of children under foot. But there had only been one, a daughter, and the Mother had taken her with the river fever.
A silence fell over the women, but it was an easy one among friends. Keisha fiddled with Baako’s braids, swatting the child when she sought to squirm away from her mother’s hands.
Raziya’s bare feet slid across the animal skins. She bent next to the water jug and attempted to release the cool liquid. “Ah! Empty. And we still have a whole evening of cooking ahead of us.”
“I shall bring more,” Tamar rose from her cross-legged seat to string a cotton cloth through the sealing lid of the earthen jar. She bent to wrap the cloth strap about her forehead and hoist the empty, but heavy, jar onto her back.
“Our thanks, Tamar,” Raziya said, sinking down in the sandy skins. She brushed fine grains from her hands, before flipping the dough and pressing her clenched fist deep into its heart.
Tamar slipped on her leather sandals as she exited the women’s tent, and wove her way towards the natural rock spring they had come across two nights past. The men had decided to rest their feet and the cattle for a few days. It had been a long trek up from Cush to the grasslands of Khand.
Last night their trading party had had to shove over and share the watering hole with a company of Easterlings. Tamar had met a few Easterlings before, and this group was as arrogant and war-like as the rest. The question of what a party of armed Easterlings were doing in Khand, was soon answered. The Easterlings were on their way home after a diplomatic mission to Khand’s capital; there were certainly enough men strutting about that could pass for lords and ambassadors to authenticate the claim.
The sooner they moved on and left the Cushites to trade in peace, the better. The Easterlings may have come South on a mission of diplomacy, but their relations had ever been hostile with the Khand. Only the Dark Lord had united them, and with His fall, any talks between the Easterlings and Variags of Khand receded to antagonistic in nature.
Keisha’s husband, the leader of their small trading party, had offered the Easterlings hospitality partly to nurse trade, and partly in an attempt of wining their good favor. Their trading band numbered only three families and four single men: Tamar and her husband Saidi; Keisha, her daughter, four sons old enough to watch the cattle, and her husband Manza; Raziya was the bond woman of Keisha, but one of the single men had set his eye on her. If trade went well Raziya may be a free, married woman before the year was out.
Tamar’s red and gold skirt drug in the dust, and she paused to tuck the ends of her wrap closer about her hips. Her fingers curled under the jar’s base, keeping a balancing hold upon it. The unpolished clay scrapped against her naked flesh. Her necklaces swung against her breasts, the copper and gold ones catching against the wrinkles formed in her bent neck.
She stepped carefully over animal wastes. The Easterlings favored horses as the Varigians’ did, and those beasts passed their bowels in useless chunks, not like the cow patties so valuable for cooking fires.
Tamar slipped though the sharp water weeds. She held the jug firmly beneath the tiny waterfall bubbling up from the deep rocks, trying to catch as little algae and floating bugs as possible. Her back started to ache before the jug was half-full, and she had to stop and press her hands into her lower back before finishing.
Tamar struggled with the jug, brushing her braids away to resettle the filled jug on her back. She braced herself, with one hand under the jug, and the other pressed to the cloth binding her brow. Her eyes were trained on her feet, concentrating on not tripping on the uneven soil and scattered rocks, when the water jug was lifted from her shoulders as if it weighted no more than a feather.
She straightened before turning. “You should not startle me so,” she chided, but the affect was ruined by her smile.
Dakarai grinned, his charcoal-black face splitting to reveal a set of perfect teeth. “I cannot help your hearing.” He laughed, and settled the water jug on the ground with one flawless move. “How could I refuse the temptation of talking to the most beautiful of Mortals?”
She tilted her chin, letting the lingering rays of light catch the gold stub gracing her noise, and glitter in her gold ear hoops. Dakarai sighed, pressing a hand over his heart as if the sight of her caused him pain. “Who could resist such a flower? With skin black as the Mother’s flesh, surely tasting sweet as the nectar of the Mother’s summer womb.”
Tamar slapped his arm to still the flattery. She was married, and Dakarai had no designs on one destined for death.
“Bahar,” Dakarai called over his shoulder to his brother.
The two Deathless Ones had accompanied their trading expedition as hired warriors. Their party had been blessed. They could ill-afford to pay the Deathless Ones the usual rate for one of their kind’s services. But the brothers had resolved to travel distant lands, and the Cushites had been fortunate enough to be journeying in a direction they liked.
The Deathless Ones, or Kwendî as they called themselves, were a familiar sight among the whitewashed-mud bricks of a Cushite town. The Kwendîs’ land lay south of theirs, down the Great River, and had shared peaceful relations with the Cushites for so long the memory stretched, back into legend.
The Deathless Ones memory reached further, back even to the first Cushites who’d come out of the East. Cushite tales said the first mother and father had seen their density in the Great River’s waters. They’d raised a palace of mud-bricks upon the banks of the Great River which ran so wide the opposite shore was hidden from view. The mother and father painted their palace gold, so thick did the land run with it then, and filled the whole valley with their children. The Deathless Ones marveled at the labor of the first mother’s womb, and they took the first father into the river valley to teach him how to coax life from it, and led him into the hills to show him iron and its uses.
The first father was so amazed by the Deathless Ones’ knowledge that he sunk to his knees and bent his head to them. He swore that he and the product of his loins would sacrifice one of their children to the Deathless Ones in gratitude, as the Men of the East honored the Dark God. But the Deathless Ones refused the offering, saying it was the work of Darkness, and bade the first father to renounce such practices and serve instead the Great Mother. The first mother asked who this Great Mother was, now being ashamed of their ignorance before the Deathless Ones. The Deathless Ones called the Great Mother Arda, and said she was the spirit of the World.
Bahar’s sandaled feet left no imprint behind his soundless steps. He wore only a simple linen kilt, leaving his upper body bare but for gold arm bands. He did not pause in his work, He lathered oil over his skin, scraping the excess off with a little shell, and preparing for the harsh rays of the noonday sun.
Bahar swatted his brother on his curly head. “Do not let Saidi hear you speak of his wife so.” Dakarai opened his mouth for a reply, but a new voice cut into the banter.
“She is a beauty indeed.” Tamar turned to see the one who spoke to her with such boldness. The empty teasing of a Deathless One, who had no intent beyond simple amusement, was one thing, but she would not be subject to a stranger’s lustful gaze.
“And who are you to speak to me with such presumption?” She pulled her not inconsiderable pride about her, and titled her chin up at the cluster of Easterling men.
She could not tell immediately who had spoken; they all carried an air of lazy entitlement. More than one was dressed in that people’s style of tunic, with cloth, woven in brilliant colors, falling to their knees and tied with fringed shawls.
One of the Easterlings stepped forward with a swagger. He was as young as his fellows, all drunk on the vitality of their lives. His face was clean-shaven, and a cloth, as heavily embroidered as his tunic, held his long hair back from his face. She might have called him handsome but for the scornful lift to his lips.
He looked her over, dragging his eyes down the length of her body, before turning back to his companions and saying something in the Easterling tongue that made them laugh. Tamar felt naked. She was dressed no differently than any other women of her people, but the way this stranger’s gaze settled on the peaks of her breasts reduced her necklaces to the head covering of a whore.
“I am called Xerthos, son of Lord Armanus, Steward of the House of the Yellow Falcon.” Self-importance was pressed into his mouth, “And your name, flower?”
“I see no reason to give it to one who looks at me in the manner of a brut.”
His eyes slitted, “You should learn your place Cushtite.”
“I know my place, and this is not it.” She made to brush passed him, but had not taken one step when she remembered the water jug. She turned to pick up the binding cloth.
“Let me,” Dakarai easily shouldered the burden. Tamar nodded, before stepping passed the stranger without another glance. She felt his eyes boring into her back, and forced herself to walk straight and tall like a woman of Cush.
Raziya painted Keisha’s caterpillar-plump lips red, before picking up the kohl and tracing the outline of her mistress’ eyes. Tiny wrinkles were developing in the corners of Keisha’s eyes and mouth, but the shadow of youth’s blossom yet clung to her. Keisha fastened a heavy gold earring in either ear, and they swung lusciously in the lamp light.
Tamar’s fingers dipped the slender painting stick into the henna juices, before tracing little lines and dots over her own left hand. Keisha and Raziya’s hands were already decorated with the blood-red dye.
Tamar rose and tucked her wrapping skirt more securely about her waist. “The men will have taken their fill of the wine by now, are we ready?” The other two women stood to join her, finished with their preparations.
The men were settled about the camp fires, wine cups twirling in their fingers. Manza was in earnest discussion with one of the Easterlings, pushing his wares at every opening. The Easterlings were a mix of rowdy and stately drinks. Those with the look of high-borns sipped their wine goblets with little frowns of displeasure, not finding the fare up to their standards. But the soldiers were seated around their own fires and raucous laughter and songs in their language drifted from their side of the camp to the lords.’
Tamar pursed her lips when she spotted her own husband talking animatedly with none other than the Easterling who had looked at her like a piece of meat, free to inspect and take or cast aside at his leisure.
She approached them, a platter of flat bread balanced on a hip while her other hand carried a bowl of sweet meats. As she placed the first of the meal before the men, she felt Xerthos’ eyes upon her. She ignored him.
She turned to offer her husband a smile, “A pleasant evening, husband?”
“Yes, wife,” he gazed upon her fondly, promising a night of pleasures between the sleeping skins.
They shared a mutually satisfying union, and she was not displeased to have chosen him as her husband. It was a good match, not the passion love songs spoke of, but a shared physical delight. More important was their prosperous partnership. The pleasures found between thighs was only a welcome addition to the business arrangement that kept the straw fresh upon their roof and filled their bellies at night.
The women retreated to their own tent after the meal was laid out for the men. Adornments were set aside as they relaxed in the company of other women. They kept their laughter muffled, lest it travel through the thin tent walls, but their enjoyment of the feast was no less than the men’s, judging from the roaring laughter and wine-slurred voices.
Tamar was awakened by someone shaking her shoulder. Keisha was leaning over her, a hastily wrapped skirt covering her from armpits to knees. “Tamar! Tamar!”
Tamar rose and reached for her own discarded cloth, wrapping her naked body, still warm from the abandoned skins. “What is it?” She caught her multitude of thick braids back in a secure knot.
There were tight lines about Keisha’s mouth. “Come, your husband will be the one to tell you of his folly,” was all the older woman would say. Tamar stumbled out of the tent, the haze of dreams giving way to confusion. What could her husband possibly have done?
Saidi was sitting, head resting in his hands, but none of those gathered about the fire approached him. Manza and the other traders were standing apart from his distressed form. Dakarai and his brother were awake, probably never having taken rest this night. Some of the Easterlings were passed out drunk on the ground, but most were watching the unfolding scene with hard eyes, hands hovering close to the curved swords on their waists. The Easterling lord, Xerthos, stood at Manza’s side. His stance spoke of perfect ease.
Keisha took Tamar’s arm, steering her towards her husband and Xerthos. “What is this?” Tamar demanded as the women came to stand before the assembled men.
Manza’s eyes darted away from hers. It was Xerthos who told her her fate. “Your husband has lost you in a game of chance. You are mine now.” He spoke carelessly, as if what he said was of little consequence, and it probably was to him. He ran his eyes over her with an air of idleness, like she was some object he was examining at his leisure.
Tamar stared at him for moment before fury washed over her. “Lower your eyes,” she commanded. “How dare you look upon me in that sordid manner? I am the wife of Saidi, not a harlot to be bartered!”
“You had best turn that sharp tongue on your husband, for it was he who made the wager. If you use that tone in my presence again I will have your tongue cut out and thrown to the dogs.” His face had shaken off the indolent look, turning pitiless. Tamar could not stop the recoiling step back she took from him.
“I wish to speak with my husband.” Tamar turned away from his eyes, not able to hold them. She forced her legs to move and carry her over to the man who had sold her like a slave.
“Saidi,” Tamar’s voice was a hiss, like a cobra with its hood back, spitting at circling enemies. He let out a moan, his fingers digging into his wooly hair. “Saidi!”
His eyes lifted slowly. Tamar reigned in her anger, willing the wretched eyes to tell her this was nothing but a cruel jest. “Tell me you did not wager your wife in dice.” He did not answer. “Tell me!”
“I did not think to lose!” He cried out, cutting her fraying hope to shreds. “I had too much wine, Tamar—” he caught at her hands, his face pleading.
Tamar slapped him, her hand leaving a light imprint on his skin. “Do not touch me. You would dishonor me? Sell me like a slave whose favors are yours to command? I am your wife!”
“I did not mean to lose you. I meant no dishonor.” His voice wheedled into defense.
“You dishonored me the moment your thoughts turned to profit by daggling my body before another’s eyes. You would barter me like a slave when no Cushite has the right to sell a wife such? You heap shame on your own head!”
Her voice dropped for his ears alone, “Curse you Saidi, who I once called husband. I spit upon your name.” Saidi shuttered, but his eyes met hers unbent, refusing to acknowledge the full weight of his foolish greed that had brought them to this.
“Tamar?” Manza called her back, and without another glance at Saidi she turned. “Will you go freely with this man?” He gestured to Xerthos.
Tamar turned to Keisha, but the older woman could not conceal her fear: the dread of a mother who fears for her children’s lives. Tamar looked into Manza’s eyes, they edged away, ashamed. He would let every Easterling here have his way with her if it meant protecting his family and goods from harm. Dakarai and Bahar were standing at the edge of the fire’s light. Dakarai’s knuckles clenched about his bow, his body posed to defend. His eyes held compassion as they met hers, but also determination. She did not blame him. Dakarai and Bahar would choose the lives of the children over hers.
There was a choice. They all had this choice. Her people could stand for her against the degradation that lay ahead, and in so doing the grasslands would drink blood this night. Or they could let her go; forever ashamed of their choice, but ready to make it again in a heartbeat.
“Yes, I will go with them freely.” Xerthos’ face was cool and confident as he reached for her. She stood stiff in his grasp, but she forced herself not to flinch at his hand on her hip.
Manza slid his sweaty hands over his robe. Keisha looked down, hiding the tears. But Tamar’s eyes sought Dakarai, needed to know if he would turn away from her too, like something shameful. His gaze had never left her. As their eyes met, he nodded, willing strength to lift her head high like a true daughter of Cush.
“We ride north with the sun.” Xerthos’ voice carved through the gagging silence. Guilty relief washed over the camp. Tamar locked her mind against the future scrapping its nails down her spine.
Tamar awoke to a foot nudging her back. She blinked foggy eyes open. They felt dry after a fitful night of sleep. She had tossed and turned for hours. Xerthos had not touched her, but it had more to do with not engaging in sexual acts when soldiers slept a few bodies away, than any pattern of restraint she could hope for on his part.
The sky was still dark, only a light coral blush showing in the east. She rolled away from the limb that had woken her so degradingly, but the boot followed her. “Get up. We ride within the hour, and I wish to break my fast.”
Tamar glared up at Xerthos, but obediently rose; keeping a hand upon her wrap that had become tangled during her tossing sleep. “May I return to my peoples’ camp to gather food?”
He dropped her a condescending smile. “I think not. You will find bread and dried meat in my saddlebag. Bring it to me, and a wineskin. “
“I did not ask for your questions. Go.” She gritted her teeth, wishing she could burn him with her eyes. But she set off, biting back the disdainful words springing to her tongue.
She quickly discovered that the simple task of bringing Xerthos his meal would be difficult. All the horses looked the same, and apart from Xerthos (and the other high-born who could not be bothered with a slave’s questions) she could find no other Easterling who spoke the trading language of the South.
Eventually she lowered herself to making coarse hand gestures at one of the men who, judging by his plain tunic, was a lowborn. The man stared at her blankly. He shook his head, turning to the soldiers beside him, and speaking in the Easterling tongue. The soldier was only half-dressed. He lacked the armor she’d seen the Easterling soldiers in the day before, only the sword hung from his wide cloth belt signifying his military status. She was not surprised the man had not pulled on the metal shirt and greaves. In bare hours the lands would be panting under the blistering southern sun.
She tried again, using ever more exaggerated hand signals until they grasped her errand. The soldier cut her off with her imaginary cup halfway to her lips, and jerked his head. He offered no smile, his eyes sliding over her as if she did not exist, and led her to a horse that possessed all of Xerthos’ ego. He helped her find the food, and threw a wineskin at her, before sauntering away.
Xerthos did not comment as she spread her find out before him on the blankets. He sat cross-legged, observing her. Tamar forced herself not to look at him. She already tasted the iron of his blood, and saw the way his face would slacked in shock when she slashed a knife through his throat.
She risked a glance up as she finished, and froze. He’d drawn out a string of carved bone and blue-glass beads. He held it idly in his hand, swinging it about his fingers as his other hand picked at the meal. When he spoke there was a careless scorn in the voice. “Your husband brought this for you.”
Her fingers trembled, but her mouth was sealed tight. “Pretty little bracelet. Do you think I should give it to you?” No reply. “I own you. You are mine as this is mine. Everything you have I shall give you, everything I give I can take away.” He waited for her reply. Her fingers burned to wrap the child’s necklace about her wrist. Her lips ached to trace the beloved beads.
Clear, amber eyes gazed up at her. The child’s face was still wrinkled from its recent nest in Tamar’s womb. The tiny mouth spilt in a yawn, and the babe’s eyes crinkling, shutting out the new world. Its face nestled in its mother’s breast.
“Akila,” Saidi’s voice broke the enchantment. The midwife clucked disapprovingly at him, trying to hustle him out of the birthing chamber as another woman chanted a spell to ward off evil spirits. But Saidi’s eyes shone with pride as he looked at his newborn daughter.
“Akila,” Tamar agreed, brushing the winkled nose, “A good name.”
Saidi tenderly strung a necklace of bone and blue-glass beads about their daughter’s neck. “Now she is as beautiful as her mother.”
Tamar forced down the throbbing in her breast, and turned away from the necklace. She refused to take anything from Xerthos’ hand. She would not debase herself before him, not even to feel the caress of the cool beads that had adorned her dead child’s neck against her own wrist.
The necklace was snapped up again, disappearing into Xerthos’ hand. “You shall not see it again until you please me.”
The sun’s crescent was spilling over the horizon as the Easterlings waited for the order to mount up. Tamar was left holding the reins of Xerthos’ horse as she searched the rocky outcroppings barring the Cushite camp from sight. She longed for one last glimpse of her people. Would not even one come to say goodbye, not even her husband of six floods? She would never see any of them again, bound for a life of slavery, yoked to a lord from lands so distant a Cushite’s foot had not walked them in living memory.
A silhouette emerged from the shadows between the standing rocks, and threaded its way towards the Easterlings. Dakarai’s skin was a sooty ebony in the early morning rays. He came alone, without the sure weight of his bow in his hand. Some of the soldiers spotted him, but none challenged his approach. Instead they parted before him like water rushing over rocks, casting uneasy looks about as they hurried to escape the unnatural aura of the Deathless One.
Dakarai settled his long fingers in the horse’s mane, uttering soothing words in its ear as much for Tamar’s benefit as the animal’s. They stood close, the Easterlings keeping an eye on them; not quite daring to deny Dakarai, but not for a moment trusting him.
Dakarai‘s thumb brushed Tamar’s forehead, leaving cool wetness behind it. Red paint lingered on his fingertips after they kissed her brow. It was the sign of peace her peoples’ women painted on their warriors’ brows when they sent them off to war. She met his eyes, her own speaking things too painful and fractured to breathe.
“Be strong, this is not the end,” Dakarai’s voice was too low to carry to prying ears. “I will not say farewell, for we shall meet again.”
Tamar snatched his hand, feeling the paint seal into the cracks of their pressed palms. “Do not. It is done. I do not want any blood spilled on my behalf, and that is all you would achieve.”
He gave no reply. “Would you give up hope?” His gaze rested on her bare wrist. “Where is the necklace? Saidi said he brought it for you.”
Her lips tightened. “I could not take it from Xerthos’ hand.”
His face turned grim. “Do not let your pride destroy you.”
“You would have me embraced this shame and grovel before him on my belly?” She yanked her hand away.
“No, I would not have that of anyone. You are a woman of pride, but an honest pride of land and people. It is not the pride that feeds upon the shame of others. Yet I would not see your pride twisted, for it can become a weapon against you.”
“Pride is all I have left. It is my honor. When this man stripes me and uses my body for his pleasure, only my pride will be left to wrap myself in.”
Xerthos’ mocking voice cut into them. “What’s this? The lover comes to bid a tearful good-bye?”
Dakarai did not award him with a reply, only sweeping his eyes over the Man. Xerthos faltered under the stare of an immortal, though he tried to hide it behind a shield of contempt. Dakarai’s face wore pity as he turned away. Xerthos muttered a warding against evil.
She watched Dakarai melt back into the land, and sent her own prayer to the Mother that it was the last she saw of him. She longed for freedom, but when was the price too great?
A horn blast shattered the morning, and the Easterlings moved with the unity of an army of ants for their horses, mounting up, soldier, high-born, and slave alike.
Xerthos settled smoothly in the saddle, pulling Tamar up behind him. She gritted her teeth as she was forced to string her fingers through the cloth belt tied about his waist. She held her body away from his back as the horse broke into a trot. Tamar did not look back. She could not endure the thought of seeing only an empty plain behind, no familiar faces to mark her back as they rode north, leaving only jumping earth clots and hoof-punched dust in their wake.
To the reader: I hope you enjoy this story, and I would love to hear what you think. I treasure reviews, and will try to reply in a timely manner, but please have patience with me if life gets in the way.
Warnings: Please heed the warnings listed for this story, they are quiet serious, it's rated mature for a reason. Some of the major/heavy warnings include: rape, scenes of violence, infanticide, mentions of abortion, characters suffering from PTSD, and sexual violence against underage children.
Cush: I am obviously barrowing the name and certain characteristics from the African nation of Cush/Nubia. I imagine Middle-Earth’s Cush lying roughly where the ancient civilization from our own world did.
I was influenced in my writing of the Easterlings by Valandhir’s truly magnificent series “The Raven's Blade,” and from ancient Mesopotamian cultures.
Cannon timeline: I need more than 2 ½ years between the fall of Sauron and Elrond’s sailing, so I am throwing the timeline out the window.
The Price of Memory
*Quendi was the name the elves gave to themselves at Cuiviénen.