Lost to the Desert WarriorBy: Sarah Morgan
‘The Persians teach their sons, between the ages of five and twenty, only three things: to ride a horse, use a bow and speak the truth.’
—from The Histories by Herodotus, Greek historian, about 484-425 BC
‘SHH, DON’T MAKE a sound.’ Layla slammed her hand over her sister’s mouth. ‘I can hear them coming. They mustn’t find us.’
She wished she’d had time to find a better hiding place. Behind the long velvet curtains in her father’s private rooms hardly seemed like an obvious place for concealment, and yet she knew in some ways this was the safest place. No one would think to look for the princesses here. They were never allowed in his bedroom. Not even today, on the day of his death.
But Layla had wanted to see for herself that the man who’d called himself her father lay cold and still in his bed and wasn’t about to leap up and commit some other sin against her or her sister. She’d stood there, hidden by the curtain, and heard him seal her fate with his dying breath. His last words hadn’t expressed regret for a life misspent. There had been no demand to see his daughters, nor even a request to pass on a loving message to make up for years of cold neglect. No apology for all the grievous wrongs. Just one last wrong—one that would seal her fate forever.
‘Hassan must marry Layla. It is the only way the people will accept him as ruler of Tazkhan.’
Hearing footsteps, Layla kept her hand pressed over her younger sister’s mouth. Her forehead brushed the curtains and she could smell the dust. The dark was disorientating and she held herself rigid, waiting for the curtains to be flung back, afraid that the slightest movement would give them away.
From behind the protection of rich, heavy velvet she heard several people enter the room.
‘We have searched the palace. They are nowhere to be found.’
‘They cannot just have vanished.’ The voice was harsh and instantly recognisable. It was Hassan, her father’s cousin, and if his last wishes were carried out, soon to be her bridegroom. Sixty years old and more power-hungry even than her father.
In a moment of horrifying clarity Layla saw her future and it was blacker than the inside of the curtain. She stared into darkness, feeling her sister’s breath warm her hand, afraid to breathe herself in case she gave them both away.
‘We will find them, Hassan.’
‘In a few hours you’ll be addressing me as Your Excellency,’ Hassan snapped. ‘And you’d better find them. Try the library. The older one is always there. As for the younger one—she has far too much to say for herself. We’re flying her to America, where she will be out of sight and out of mind. The people will soon forget her. My marriage to the eldest will take place before dawn. Fortunately she is the quiet one. She has nothing to say for herself and is unlikely to object.’
He didn’t even know her name, Layla thought numbly, let alone her view on the world. She was ‘the eldest’. ‘The quiet one’. She doubted he knew or cared what she looked like. He certainly didn’t care what she wanted. But then neither had her father. The only person who cared about her was currently shivering in her grasp.
Her young sister. Her friend. Her family.
The news that they were planning to send Yasmin to America intensified the horror of the situation. Of everything that was happening, losing her sister would be the worst.
‘Why rush into the marriage?’
Hassan’s companion echoed Layla’s thoughts.
‘Because we both know that as soon as he finds out about the old Sheikh’s death he will come.’
He will come.
Layla knew immediately who ‘he’ was. And she also knew Hassan was afraid. So afraid he couldn’t bring himself to speak the name of his enemy. The formidable reputation of the desert warrior and rightful ruler of the wild desert country of Tazkhan frightened Hassan so badly it was now forbidden to speak his name within the walled city. The irony was that by banning all mention of the true heir to the sheikdom he had increased his status to that of hero in the minds of the people.
In a small moment of personal rebellion, Layla thought the name.
Raz Al Zahki.
A prince who lived like a Bedouin among the people who loved him. A man of the desert with steely determination, strength and patience, who played a waiting game. Right now he was out there somewhere, his exact whereabouts a secret known only to those closest to him. The secrecy surrounding him increased tensions in the Citadel of Tazkhan.