The sands of the desert had cooled, though the breeze out of the west still carried a trace of the day's dry heat. The wagons had been circled, and tents of various shapes and sizes had been erected around them. Three small fires were burning low within the ring of wagons. A handful of men stood near the fires, talking in hushed tones. The scent of strong coffee mingled freely with the earthier smell of the animals that had been tethered nearby. Sahm sat within earshot of the assembled men, rubbing the blade of his shamshir with an oily cloth.
He'd ridden ahead of the caravan that day, which meant that he was allowed to rest that evening. Tomorrow night he would patrol the camp's perimeter, probably with Hashim or Qadil.
He sighed forlornly in spite of himself as he thought of being paired with Hashim. The man — hells, Hashim was practically a boy — prattled on like a woman. He was full of gossip and vanity, bragging about his father's wealth and the endless herds of camels that roamed his family's extensive properties. The discussion, which was always one-sided, grew tiresome quickly. It was all that Sahm could do to hold his tongue once Hashim got started. If there was a bright side to patrolling with Hashim, Sahm was unable to determine what it was.
Qadil, on the other hand, was an older fellow, probably a dozen years Sahm's senior. He'd been a caravan guard most of his life, and his lined and weathered face revealed untold wisdom and knowledge. When he spoke on patrol, which was rare, it was to convey something of importance. Sahm had learned quickly to listen to Qadil, and he had developed a great deal of respect for the older man. The one time that Qadil had spoken to Sahm at any length, he'd talked about his family. Two wives, fourteen children (ten of them boys), and a number of horses waited for him back home. He made a comfortable living riding with the desert caravans, his experience commanding quite a sum from the merchants that employed him.
The caravan had set out from the great city of Uman ten days ago, the silks and spices in its wagons destined for the vast markets of Aliz in the south. Passengers had also come with the caravan, occupying a richly-appointed wagon that was kept close to the center of the column as it trundled along the winding north/south road. Sahm had seen two of the passengers, servants or slaves by the looks of them, running about in the mornings and evenings, fetching food for the mysterious guests in the opulent carriage.
As they scouted that morning, Hashim had boasted in a whisper that he'd spied the enigmatic travelers the day before. "A woman," he'd said, looking sidelong over his shoulder in the direction of the wagons in the distance.
Sahm shrugged, trying to seem uninterested in the boy's nattering.
"Her eyes are like jade, Sahm," Hashim continued with a sigh. "Skin so fair, it would seem the sun has never had the pleasure of shining upon it. And her face..."
At that, Sahm shot Hashim a disapproving glance. "You saw her face?"
Hashim held up a hand, trying to hide the wayward grin that fought to manifest upon his chapped lips. "I could not help it, Sahm. Had you been with me, your eyes would have been held captive as well."
Sahm grunted, intrigued in the tale despite himself. "Is she alone?"
Nodding, Hashim went on. "She has servants, of course. Young girls, mostly, but none of them anywhere near as lovely as she is."
"Of course not," Sahm said.
"Five more weeks," Hashim mused. "I'm sure you'll have a chance to catch a glimpse of her, Sahm. Don't be jealous of my good luck."
"Don't worry," Sahm replied. "I'm not."
Yet Sahm was, even though he didn't want to admit it to himself. Much less admit it to the likes of Hashim. He'd seen twenty-three years, yet he'd never found a woman that he cared about enough to marry. His mother wrung her hands endlessly when she thought of her son's perpetual bachelorhood. His father was somewhat more forgiving, though even he was growing tired of the endless matchmaking. Sahm's brothers had all married. Aside from his youngest sister, who had yet to see her eleventh year, each of his siblings had found a bride or been married off to a husband.
He didn't particularly mind the bachelor's lifestyle he'd become accustomed to, but he did occasionally wonder what he was missing. The girls his parents had introduced him to were, by and large, vapid and naïve, insufferably young, with little knowledge of the world outside of their bedchambers. Homely, too, despite their mothers' attempts to hide their features with veils and heavy robes. Sahm could not be bothered to pay much attention, and like as not his would-be brides would leave his father's house in tears. Mother would wag her head, and Father would roll his eyes, but they never seemed particularly surprised at the outcome.
"Your eyes seem far away," said a familiar voice, rousing Sahm from his reverie. The blade of his scimitar shined yellow-orange in the flickering firelight. Looking up from the folded steel that had once served his grandfather, Sahm saw that Qadil had addressed him. "Might I intrude?"
Sahm nodded, and Qadil sat down next to him. Crossing his legs, the older man pulled his sheathed dagger from within the folds of his robe and placed it near his feet. "What troubles you?"
Sahm shrugged, sheathing his scimitar in his plain steel scabbard. "Brides that might have been."
Qadil chuckled at that, scratching his chin thoughtfully. Despite his weatherworn features, he was a fine-looking man, with grey-white hair and a closely-trimmed beard. His hazel eyes twinkled in the firelight. "Pretty ones?"
By way of reply Sahm scoffed, following it with a wry chuckle.
"Your first wife must always be beautiful," Qadil said. "Otherwise, your eyes will wander. You'll save the ugly ones for your second and third wives, if you know what's good for you."
"I can do naught but trust in your wisdom, sahir," Sahm said.
Qadil waved his hand dismissively at Sahm's compliment. "You are young yet, Sahm. You will marry in time, I am sure."
Sahm nodded quietly, and turned to look at the fire even as his thoughts turned to the caravan's mysterious passenger and the rumors of her beauty...