Caesara Palestina Province
Domination of Draka
Fall, 1936

The seaside resorts at Caesarea Palaestina were one of the more favoured vacation spots of the Domination of Drakia (Draka in the short form). The Levantine coast had been in the possession of the Domination for a long time, unlike the more recently conquered territories of the rest of the Fertile Crescent. It was calm, peaceful, and sunny, pleasant, and dry in the summer. The serfs there were pampered luxury toys who served every whim of the Drakan visitors, without complain. The nightlife was excellent; wine flowed and music played, even, scandalously, American jazz.

The Megalos was one of the most popular seaside dance halls, built on one of the long piers stretching out into the old harbour. A swing band was playing, doing a good job of imitating the real thing. The clientele were mostly those bored with the normal delights of a vacation. The Megalos had everything one could want in a big american dance hall--and it also had personal service from its staff of serfs in every aspect, and some.. Back rooms. Music was piped through the whole building and the clientele enjoyed the usual debauchery, just with a slightly different face.

Nobody would have noticed the two serfs as anything different from the normal inhabitants of the club; they were the ubiqtuitous and unnoticed servants, whom Citizens only paid attention to that they might issue orders or receive pleasure. One of them appeared to be a pregnant woman, not far enough along yet to be granted leave from her simple duties of pouring and serving. The other was a muscular looking handsome young man who might be the preference of a few Citizens for a night that held a chance of the play of resistance, rather than abject terror on the part of their victim.

The man was carrying a massive keg of whiskey on his back, the Islamic prohibitions about liquor surely long ago beaten out of him. He settled it down on a table full of revellers--a great round table that seated sixteen and was quite full with Citizens making merriment--and tapped the keg for them as he should. They paid him little attention, as they watched dancers on the floor just beyond sway and gyrate and the band play on. Perhaps he was lazy, or perhaps he was foolish, but the liquor spilled forth onto the table.

"Demmit, yah!" One of the Citizen men shouted, leaping up to beat the servant who seemed lackaidasical in stopping the flow. The overpowering smell of alcohol rushed out; but nobody beyond the table really noticed. The girl who had just served a dish at the other table turned around, her hands clasped at her waist. Nobody noticed her until she shouted. "ALLAHAKBAR!!"God is most Great. The match she had placed to the soft fabric covering her stomach flared as the fabric caught, and the fire spread up her body, on clothes soaked in alcohol and then allowed to dry, the smell covered in perfumes that the serving girls were expected to wear.

In the few moments they had left, the nearest citizens could not be blamed for thinking they were witnessing the self-immolation of a single unhappy slave. But then the black powder that had been placed in the pouch on the stomach of Fatimah bint Talal al-Burqawt caught. It was a few pounds of the simplest powder, not even corned, but it was more than sufficient. It blew her apart instantly, and it did more. She had hoped to martyr herself next to one of the kegs; the Shaykh had told her that Shaitan's Water burned furiously. The clumsy mistake of the other slave--close enough to be martyred by the blast rather than what followed--guaranteed her success. The explosion ignited the keg and a fireball erupted in the middle of the wooden structure.

Twenty Citizens were dead in a heartbeat, and six more mortally wounded; they died instants later in fire. All these casualties had been caused either by the blast or by the first initial spark of the fire. One even died as a piece of a bone of Fatimah's was driven into her skull by the force of the blast--she might be considered lucky. People fled the packed and burning dance hall as the fire, spread by the alcohol, raced up into the roof, and those to slow to escape in the packed mass were burned by the hot fires racing up behind them. Flesh was seared off bone by the heat and arms melted into fabric and the skin of one's face as hands were brought up instinctively to protect the eyes in futility. Such horrific damage could be survived but those who received it were to far back to escape; the fire consumed them totally in minutes.

The legendary Drakian discipline against pain since birth broke down into a morass of screams of pain. The heads of women burst into flames as their long hair caught and they tried to rush forward; men could hear their testicles cracking away in a flash of heat moments before they died of the power of the fire. Secondary explosions from other kegs sympathetic bursting in a rush of flame from the fire's heat against their wood spread the fire but further. It rushed rapidly through the building and did not allow enough time for escape. As smoke billowed forth others were overwhelmed by the toxic gases and asphyxiating lack of oxygen. Others were crushed to death in the mob that fought its way with ironic Drakan brutality towards the exits.

Two hundred and three Citizens perished either from the explosion and firestorm in the Megalos or from their wounds after they escaped, beating their way through to the inadequet exits and racing the fire on a wooden pier. Countless others were maimed in horrific ways. The scene left the resort town locked down as the security detachments went to work investigating the detonation. The reprisals would begin when the report had been completed. For the moment, impaling all the serfs who escaped the Megalos was deemed sufficient after they had been vigorously interrogated.

Pieter Tras sighed in disgust. His best troubleshooter in Islamic problems hadn't arrived yet and everyone at high command was screaming for the Security Directorate to do something. Well, they'd just have to fucking wait for Beth to show up. And he would to, no matter that he was the overall director for Palestina. Elizabeth Rikkesgarde was a law unto her own, and she was for a reason at that: They needed crazies like her to fight the crazies who boiled out of the desert to die.

Now they boiled out of the cities to, and didn't just charge guns on their fine Arabians; now it was clear that long-bred servants were quite prepared to do the same, and in a more dramatic fashion. Everyone in the Security Directorate knew what the problem was--it was just that what caused it, what had accelerated it to this--suicide bombing?--was not clearly understood by anyone, except a few who had spent years on the desert in the bloody partisan war still being waged in an-Nafud.

Pieter stiffened a bit as he heard the sentries call out a challenge, but they were bellowed down a contralto that somehow could bother even Citizens with its imperious elegance: It certainly cowed the serf guards. And then She strode in, the Desert Queen. Elizabeth Rikkesgarde's pale Iceland skin had long been burned a deep reddened tan by the sun, and in the weary wrinkles and creases of her worn face, she looked fourty-five, not thirty-five--though perhaps, Pieter granted, that was unkind to her. Somewhat.

The gray-green eyes set in that aristocratic face gave her the countenance of a hawk. Under her flesh there were clearly wiry muscles of intense strength by the standards of any woman, and she was bow-legged from countless days in the saddle. She wore a long flowing bedouin robe, white fabric left dusty and uncleaned; under it, simple heavy trousers and a long tunic, both undyed, and heavy Parthian boots. On her head was a battered Austrian kappe with a neck flap, souvenir of the Great War. The sword strapped to her belt, it was rumored, she had taken off the body of a Hashemite prince and was a thousand years old.

Sometimes the legends in intelligence services held a shade of the truth, and it was true here. She took off the Kappe, holding the battered object tenderly as she ran a hand against the short hair on the back of her head--it was, however, rather long towards the top, and generally carelessly cut. Altogether Beth had to be the most shamelessly fashionless Citizen in the whole Domination. But Pieter waited for her to start talking; it was a sign of respect for one of the operators who roamed the Arabian deserts, weeding down the bushmen to safe levels (for they hadn't been for a long time, but rather real raiding armies), searching out signs of British perfidy, and escorting survey parties.

"Pieter, y'pulled mai Druze away from ah foray that coulda run verrah well," she said flatly at last, with no recognition of his superiour rank or anything else for that matter, as she replaced the battered kappe, almost uncomfortable that she briefly did not have it on her head. The accent was thick on her words, but they had a forced attempt at perfection of English dictation to overcome the accent that produced an effect perhaps like an Australian trying to fit in with high society in London.

"Couldn't yeh have assigned command ta' sumone alse?"


Pieter stared at her for a moment and then shook his head. Some of the things she said... "Beth, take ah seat, fer bliddy sure yu'll need aht when y'see this."

Rikkesgarde sat without a comment, and as she did was reaching into her belt. She had a scroll there, and threw it down on the table. "Ah alriddy know."

Pieter looked at it. It was in Arabic. He tried to suppress a groan and settled back in his chair. "I dunna have ah specialist ahround all bliddy day."

Elizabeth waited for him to say that, and then quite calmly pulled out the English translation she'd written and tossed it down on the table in front of Pieter. This was in English, and excellent King's English, too. Elizabeth had spent several years in the United Kingdom before the Great War when she was growing up, and though her accent was Drakian her writing was not. Pieter read through it slowly, deciphering the language:

In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful,
by Haj Amin al-Husseini, Emir al-Shahada Saraya al-Jihadiyah al-Osmani Khalifa

(ed. -- 'Commander of the Martyrs' Brigades of the Jihad Army of the Ottoman Caliphate.')

The ideology of martyrdom is spreading now in our Islamic nation, praise be to God, Lord of the Universe; and it exposes the weakness of the pagans and of those apostates who make false claims about the Will of God and who claim that they are God's deputies on earth. These people, they are lying and serving Taghut (ed. -- forces of Satan), they shall go to Hell. Dar al-Islam (ed. -- House of Islam) has rejected the teachings of these false prophets and apostates. In the land of the farthest mosque (ed. -- Palestina) the believers have rejected the words of these false teachers and they again obey the Will of God.

God is the only Master of a Muslim, praise be to God. False masters bring down the wrath of God. It is because of this submission to false masters that the Two Cities were removed from the Earth by the power of God, denying the pagans the pleasure of entering them once again since Muslims no longer rose in their defence. That pagans profane the sacred places of God and Muslims become apostates shows that al-Mahdi's time is neigh, praise be to God. He shall defeat the pagans in Syria and true Muslims will follow him; they will not be defeated.

Keep in heart that Muhammad, Peace be upon Him, is the last Prophet of the Lord of the Universe. The revelation of God through Muhammad is the only true Qur'an (ed. -- Koran) and those who distort it will be sent straight down to Hell, praise be to God. We speak to true Muslims everywhere and tell them that their sacred duty is to send apostates down to Hell and uphold the true faith. By doing this the pagans shall be defeated and driven from the holy cities, and the Hajj (ed. -- pilgrimage) shall be restored to Muslims, God Willing.

This is again the age of al-jahilyya (ed. -- realm of pre-Islamic paganism), where all that God has forbidden is allowed, and all that God has allowed is forbidden. As it says in the Hadith of Sharh Fiqh Akbar, "he who does not recognize his Imam dies the death of jahilyya". This is a truth of Islam. Those who do not follow the Qur'an and the Sunnah are doomed to the Hell of the people of al-jahilyya. This must be as the relationship between an Imam (ed. -- used here as a general term meaning "teacher") and his student. This is the path to righteousness and paradise, the path that leads to standing before God and not Shaitan.

In these times the Will of the faithful is being tested. The true faithful will rise to this test put upon us by God. Those who do not are apostates and will be sent to Hell. We are locked in a mortal combat with the infidel; as they strive to overcome us and make us submit to the false teachings that go against Islam, so do we also strive to overcome them, aided only by the Dar al-Kitab (ed. -- People of the Book), and even they do not raise their hands directly against the foe. However, those who remain faithful to God, submit only to His Will, and ready themselves to die in His service, may be assured of victory.

Though they will not see it on the earth, God will grant the pleasures of victory to every Shahada (ed. -- martyr), and those pleasures which reside in paradise God has created to be a thousand times more wondrous than anything which may be imagined upon the earth. Because of this understanding that only through faithfulness to God can one reach paradise, many under the yoke of the infidel have turned away from the love of mortal life and embraced death lovingly in knowledge that God favours Shahada above all other believers. This has created a core of Shahada brigades ready to carry out jihad on the command of God against the infidel in every place, but especially so that the Holy Cities might be liberated.

Thus we bring you good tidings from the land of the farthest mosque. God has filled the hearts of the pagans there with fear. God, the Compassionate, the Merciful, has given us the power to rid Dar al-Islam of the pagans. He caused the girl Fatimah bint Talal al-Barqawt to become Shahida in His service. The hands of lust and apostasy no long reach for her, but instead she rests in virtue in Paradise forever, praise be to God. He caused the man Abdullah bin Tewfik to become Shahid in His Service. No longer do the sodomites reach their Hell-stricken hands for him; he has avenged himself in a sea of their blood and, praise be to God, resides now with 72 houris (ed. -- dark-eyed virgins) astride the fountains of paradise.

God, the Compassionate, the Merciful, has sent hundreds of pagans into the fires stoked by Shaitan; he has done this through the hands of the faithful. Truly God is the Lord of all Man, praise be to God. Now, let the truth be said, that a just individual ready to sacrifice himself for God is equal to a whole army, and that God rewards the shahid with the greatest pleasures of paradise. This is why Muslims love the thought of death but pagans cower in fear before our shahada, knowing that if they die by the hand of a shahada that God will send them to Hell.

The pagans hate the faithful of God. When a glorious shahada strikes, they shall send thousands of apostates and faithful alike to their deaths. Apostates will go straight to Hell. But those who hold true to the revelation of the Qur'an will be taken up to paradise by God and will rest in the gardens of paradise forever, revered even by the other faithful in paradise as the shahada of God. Every thousand that the pagans kill simply sends another thousand shahada to the pleasures of paradise. Because of this all Muslims desire to die in the service of God, and all Muslims hope to be made shahada by the wrath of the pagans so that they might enjoy paradise.

Our weapon in our battle against the pagans is the shahid. Fearing only God and loving death, our shahada will slay the pagans everywhere. All pagans shall tremble before the faithful. The strength of a few of the faithful desiring paradise will destroy them all and their hearts shall be eaten by djinni (ed. -- demons approx) in the pits of Hell. They shall make a thousand sighs in their pain, but receive no succor. They shall make a thousand sighs in their thirst, but receive no water. Each day their bodies will be burned and restored so that the punishments of Hell may begin anew. The apostates will also burn with them, and will also have their tongues gouged out continuously by djinni for speaking falsehood.

But the faithful, on the other hand, shall dwell in the gardens of paradise and each shall have seven hundred fountains and endless trees with every variety of fruit. Each shall enjoy seventy-two houris and they shall be so that pleasure is always their's (ed. -- erection on demand without exhaustion) and the moment of pleasure (ed. -- orgasm) will last for a thousand years. They shall pluck precious jewels off trees and bathe in milk; God will grant the shahada everything and they will lack nothing. This is the reward of God, the Compassion, the Merciful, to those who die in jihad against Dar al-Hab (ed. -- House of War).

God is Most Great, God is Most Great, Praise be to God, Praise be to God, the liberation of the Holy Cities is coming soon, the liberation of the Holy Cities is coming soon, God is Most Great, God is Most Great, Praise be to God, Praise be to God, God is Most Great, God is Most Great.

"Welh, t'bliddy pock that," Pieter said as he finished. "At least weh know who t'pock did et."

"So weh can send ah hundred martyrs ta' paradise fer every citizen dead?"

"That's what weh do," Pieter shot back. "An' yah should remember et, Beth--desert's gettin' ta yer head."

"People sah that all t'bliddy time," she shot back, though still in a casual tone. "Don't change that I'm rought."

"Iffin they'd beh believin' et."

"Think dere's sum other reason we be fightin' Arabs from Morocco t'the Zagros?"

Pieter was silent after that, rather annoyed at Elizabeth on general principle. She was right, though, it hadn't simply be a desire for loot which had driven the Arabs to conquer the vast swathes of territory they now inhabited--and now caused trouble for the Domination in. Some areas were pacified, like Mesopotamia and Tunisia, the Nile valley, and so on. Most weren't. Bushmen weren't a problem, of course, but in many cases this went well beyond that: Hundreds of them could boil out of the desert for a raid on horseback from places no Citizen had ever gone, and even regular airship reconaissance didn't stop that problem.

Now they had just escalated things, and were clearly encouraging the whole of the Muslim serf populace on an immensely dangerous concept. Pieter understood it, intellectually, but he could not comprehend what would make inferior beings sacrifice their lives--often quite decent really--for the ethereal promise of religion. Elizabeth had figured out the answer to that question, he realized now, and that was probably why she was such an eccentric.

"They beh bliddy serious, Pieter," she spoke again after a few minutes of level silence. "Teh clerics, they beh ready ta see every muslim in t'Domination go ta 'paradise', iffin it comes to that. An' it will, too, if we don't act now."

"Ehn what do yah think weh should do?"

"Exterminate them as t'ere discovered, keep fightin' t'tribes, harsh reprisals 'gainst families an' clans. But all 'at 'ell just ease it--ta eliminate it, weh have tah exceed Genghis Khan. Iffin teh Mongols couldn't break up t'Islam, then we got t'be worse than t'Mongols." She laughed, there, and it wasn't pleasant--the sound and the look of someone observing society from the point of a spectator, observing with casual cynicism but not participating. "Weh is workin' on it, but weh still got a ways ta go."

"That observation'll be 'ike ta speed et up," Pieter countered as he jotted down a few notes, looking down as the page.

"Ah know," Elizabeth assigned with the sigh on her voice unheard by her command. She started to rise just then and as Pieter looked up she was nearly at the door.

"Beth! Demmit!"

She paused and looked back. "Pieter, y'want 'em stopped, I gotta job t'do."

"With everything y'know, how t'hell do yeh trust yer tame Druze, anyway?"

"Weh understand each other," Elizabeth answered, as if that made any sense.

"Take 'ah break from t'desert fer a few weeks, Beth. 'Tis an order. Let t'bliddy Druze camp in yer garden or whatever, but visit yer villa an' take a break--I need yah here, explaining all 'tis," a gesture to the papers she had left on his desk, "t'the idjits back in Archon who ain't ever seen ah Muslim, 'cept in parades."

Elizabeth sighed deeply then. People, these days and perhaps always, had just brought disgust to her. The desert was clarity, emptiness and heat and endless visages, inhabited by a people as simply clear in their nature and faith as the land in which they lived. Insane, of course, and all of them worthy for killing. But they were really easier to get along with than the gaudy fobs of her homeland, and as long as the right men ended up dead, nobody cared about the details of what went on in the deep desert.

"Ah right, iffin the Domination needs mae here, I'll be here. Fer a month, na longer. Ring ahead an' tell my Majorodomo--Puran--wha' all I need tae write. She'll be able ta remember it fer me." Elizabeth's personal slaves had a not unconsiderable amount of freedom--in the paradox of someone obsessed with the desert, despite her loathing for Islamic tenets she actually used them primarily in dealing with the slaves--and with her frequent and long absences they had to be capable of managing basic affairs without her.

"Done," Pieter replied, pleased to have delegated authority, and moreover, gotten one of his best operatives to actually take a break. He suspected that if he hadn't done so from time to time she would have been set to die at fourty from that insane life in the desert.

Elizabeth headed out, worrying. She had to find a way to sugar-coat the truth of the matter to Archona, which meant doing her duty and explaining just how serious the threat is without actually having to flat out say that, yes, multi-generational serfs were still capable of mass uprising for a reason least understood of all by the Domination. It was not going to be pretty, and in the meantime, the dying would surely continue.

Part One: Where love yet prevails

Sleeping during the night was odd. It was something nobody did. Or, at least, nobody in the desert. The night was when you moved, when the air was cool and the stars overhead allowed you to navigate. The bed was uncomfortable. It was to soft; the body got used to sleeping with only a blanket between yourself and the sand, perhaps a grand rug at the best. Indeed, there was no sand. It was stuffy; the desert was brutally hot, but it was open. Here there was only the slow stirring of the air from a punkah, the bands that controlled it pushed back and forth endlessly by a slave.

Elizabeth, her floppy mess of hair unkempt in sullen contrast to Drakian style, rose as the afternoon began to cool, slowly in that murky air. There would be a long list of things to do, that had accumulated during the day when everybody else worked. Things for her to do, and things for Puran to do. "Bidâr," awake, she said softly into the other woman's ear. And again. "Bidâr." Puran did not easily awake; no doubt her dreams were better than her reality. But the familiar word in Farsi was enough to stir her, and groaning softly, she rolled over onto her side, away from Elizabeth, speaking not, though Beth knew that her eyes were open.

It was a thing that pained her heart. She rolled on her side as well, if for no other reason than the deny the temptation of rest the silken sheets induced. Beth in truth hated them, but Puran insured that the best was provided for her mistress, and since she was usually not even in the manor, she never had bothered to tell her Majorodomo to stop buying them--what would be the point? All the wealth in the world was no comfort to the soul, nor would it ever be. The gaudy ostentation of her society hide its inherent hollowness.

"Ché khabar ast ?" Beth ignored the prohibitions regarding the native language of serfs as much as she had over time become willing to break most of the other prohibitions of her society; she was at any rate in the Security Directorate herself and they needed her. Nobody cared about one eccentric who had at most fifty serfs and stayed in the deep desert most of the year.

"Qalb-e-man zarar rasândan," Puran replied after a long silence in which she'd weighed the response with the heavy heart of a serf to the dangers of the language and of the question. It was a confession that some others would not have stood.

"I do not like causing you pain," Beth answered with a dreadful, towering feeling in the heart. She was tired, a sort of tiredness that a long sleep could not divest her of. Classic Farsi, spoken between them, sounded cleaner and lighter off the tongue than the Drakian dialect of English that she had grown up speaking. It was a language of poets and philosophers, of things unsuited for composition in the harsh, chopped English of her nation with its awkward loan words.

"I believe you, sometimes," Puran answered after another long silence. "And.." Her voice faded to a whisper. "I have even learned to like our nights together. But..."

"I know it brings you guilt," Beth sighed and rolled over, her body pressing up to her slave's, breasts touching lightly to her back, a hand lightly wrapping around her. Puran moved not in response, but rather breathed in slowly the muggy salt-borne air of the levantine coast as it was lightly stirred by the constantly moving punkah.

"I am your faithful slave," Puran debased herself, the words fluttering out with the eloquence of a most humble form, in a language trained around such distinctions, a language that could express a hundred forms of submission to Man and three hundred to God.

The nuance of the sentence did not recover Elizabeth's heart. She rested in silence against her slave, her mind musing over the response, over trivial things in it to avoid the deeper sentiment: Perhaps part of the reason the Dominate was so violent in its control, was that its awkward language, built up with the vocabulary of equality, could not properly express what must be said in a society built around submission.

None of that particularly mattered at the moment, however. "You know I have stopped sleeping with any others, a long time ago," murmured Elizabeth. "Do not fault me for how I was raised, as I do not fault you for the prejudices of your race."

Long years of power and responsibility, by the standards of a serf, and Elizabeth's casual assent to Puran's independence, brought the outburst that came suddenly, the young woman turning towards her mistress with such abruptness as that Elizabeth found herself looking up at the flashing intensity of Puran's exquisite eyes of gray and green, dark hair silouetting the light dusk skin of that nobly-set face and voluptuous frame that had been given every attention deserved of a prized serf. "No one is fated to conquer. Perhaps our race was inflicted with you for our sins by Allah, but that you were the hand of his wrath was your own choice. Allah does not compel anyone to evil without their own desire to commit it."

A reactive instinct of rage at Puran began to grow, but then faded. She could not find it in her heart even to rebuke the girl, not anymore, for an act of impudence that deserved at least a hundred lashes, or worse. That would just restore the lust and the envy and hollow out the heart once more. Elizabeth felt the deadening futility of it all and smiled up, gently. The sudden anger that seized Puran faded as she looked down at that mellow smile and realized how close she had come.

Slowly Puran's body folded in against Elizabeth's, limp, almost exhausted physically as well as emotionally by the act of free will, contrary to the nature ingrained in her for at least half of her life and the formative years at that. She slumped against Elizabeth, sobbing softly against her with the heavy weight of fears and shame, at once at herself and what had been done to her.

Elizabeth wrapped her arms lightly around the girl, the sheet churned around by their movements and now tossed aside. "I love you, Puran, and lust borne of youth and avarice has been swept out of my heart by time in the sands. What is empty is full and what is full is empty--my people are great in their physical strength, but our race is built on the rejection of all inner power. Believe me when I say I have learned this and reject it; I cannot give you my freedom but I can give you my heart."

Puran rolled off of Elizabeth with a heavy sigh upon her lips. "The heart cannot be stirred to passion without freedom. Mistress, I know my duty to you and will never abandon it... But that is all I feel within my heart for you. It is a strong bond, but not what you seek."

Elizabeth laughed, and it was a bitter thing. "I am punished for my obsessions. All the power in the world does not grant you command of another's heart, as your co-religionists so gladly demonstrate in ever-growing numbers."

The truth did not confirmation from silent Puran, who again averted herself from her mistress and in so doing spoke in a language deeper than even the rich words of her native tongue. Elizabeth watched it, and made to rise, unable to bear Puran's presence so close as to be felt through the air, the need to escape the remind of that faint tingle upon the senses.

Elizabeth walked towards the balcony off the bedroom, grasping for a robe and draping it over her form as she opened up the light french doors and stepped out, looking over the gardens she had created in the classic Islamic style, full of fountains and geometric patterns and vegetation pleasing to the eye. Birds dwelled there, and blue-tiled walkways reminiscent of the mostly destroyed Islamic architecture of the world. Some of it remained, in Europe, in Xinjiang, and of course it flourished in India, where the Caliph led Friday prayers in the Badshahi Mosque with its capacity of fifty thousand worshippers.

Her people were very good at destroying beauty. The sight, today, did not calm her but rather just aroused her anger. The price of their unbroken string of conquests was impossibly great, but what had given them the power of conquest also denied them the ability to realize their crimes. Denied them the ability to feel. The outward gaudiness of her race was a masque to cover what was hollow, nothing more, and she could not even bear the thought of it without contempt any longer.

There was nothing here for her. These people were not her comrades, even though she fought and had risked her life for them for nearly twenty years. Her life had been lived in the service of the State, and in the end that service had destroyed her relationship to the State. Once, her lust for conquest and atrocity had led her, when peace finally reinged, to the desert, to continue the fight. But the desert had swallowed up all the futility of those efforts, swallowed up herself, ultimately, so that she was no longer the same.

A Drakian soul was eternally thirsty, but where there was not water, sand might suffice. The cost was incredibly heavy, though, and it still weighed on the heart. "The purest form of love is unrequited love," she murmured, this in Arabic, as was only suitable. Looking back to Puran she saw her obediently remaining on the bed and smiled softly, and then turned to walk back in. "I am going to bathe, Puran, and clear my mind in the steam. I will send for you soon."

"As you command, Mistress."

The words simply drove home the decision made in the fullness of that hot levantine air, that she had but to reconcile herself to.

Puran made her way through the languid heat of the hammân, relaxed by the steam of it, to at last come to the reclining room where her mistress waited. Her heart was heavy, and she still feared the reaction that might come of her rejection. But Puran could not have lied; she sensed the truth in the words that had been uttered to her and she could not make herself answer prettily and falsely to them, to masque her heart simply to win the favour of her mistress. She was beyond it, herself, and that prideful example from a slave had done more to corrupt the one who owned then she could realize.

"Châi?" Elizabeth asked as she entered, gesturing to the tea with a casual sort of friendliness that seemed beyond even the relaxed nature of their relationship by most standards between the master and serf.

"Moteshakker hastam," Puran replied uncertainly as she moved to sit. Shame might linger in her heart but it was long stripped from her body; and in the bath, at least, nudity at least seemed halfway normal, despite all the memories that might remain. She took up the tea and in doing so saw approval in Elizabeth's eyes, and for a few minutes they sipped their tea in what seemed frightfully like a companionable silence.

It was Elizabeth who spoke, again, and this time in Arabic: "I will not utter a word to you in English again, I swear it upon the salt of my body. Puran, you may not love me, but it does not bend my own heart."

Puran felt a tightening in her chest, of fear and curious anticipation, as she looked with widened eyes to Elizabeth. "Why do you say such a thing, mistress, when you consider my duties? What do you mean that your heart is not bent?" The last question posed in rising nervousness that soon became apparent to the woman across from her.

"Worry not, Puran." A serene expression, that of someone who had made up their mind. A decade in the desert and two of war had been sufficient, and love had provided the crucible. "I am headed into the deep desert."

Shock, at first: "So soon!? Mistress... There is so much that they wish you to do here." But the words covered up the deeper meaning of what had been said and Puran knew it. Realized dawned but slowly; yet the sense of a finality came over the room.

"I have already ordered the Druze to prepare for a sortie. They do not know where yet, but they do not need to. We are going south, through the Negev, and then across to the Nejd. From there we will cut south, over the Riyadh railroad, into the Rub' al-Khali. We are going to Muscat, Puran, where they will not expect us to go, because everyone knows it is impossible to cross the Rub' al-Khali. We are going to Muscat, Puran, and there are two sets of riding clothes waiting for us when we leave the hammân."

Puran could not find words, no matter the tongue, as she stared back at Elizabeth, in utter shock. But she did not need them; there was no question of not going with her mistress. This was to be the last command, and it would be obeyed.

They rode mares through the night, fine Arabians bred for these conditions, bred by nomads for their needs under the desert. Puran still wondered sometimes if she were dreaming. They rode under the stars, there was not a cloud, no haze, nothing, just the endless canopy of the stars that guided them onward. It was a strange feeling; for seventeen years, since she was seven, her life had been, no pun intended, dominated by the Domination. Now there was a feeling of emptiness and terrible fright, but it mingled with other things.

It was more impossible for her to believe that Elizabeth had done what she had, than to think that for all intents and purposes she was free. They all risked death--her's and that of the Druze more hideous than Beth's for 'abberant' behaviour--and it had made them light-hearted, the natural instinct of humans to ease the tension of close danger. The ride through the Negev had been eerily empty, nobody in sight, nobody alive. A few empty roads were crossed and nothing was seen: The Bedouin had either died, or fled east, into the security of the deep desert.

Puran had been amazed how during the day a group of seventy-two travellers with five hundred and seventy-six animals had simply been able to vanish. Dyed tarpulins and skillful concealment that was, as Elizabeth had told her, based on how the bedouin now hid in the deep desert--from aeroplanes. It was obvious from the ground that people were there, but even from an altitude of a few dozen feet the whole camp blended in to the desert without the slightest bit of evidence that it existed, or so she had been assured. As for the ground, well, every single one of them--except for Puran herself--had a good old Turkish Mauser, the preferred gun of Security Directorate operators on the Arabian frontier, because it allowed them to use ammunition taken off the bodies of their enemies and was very reliable in the sand.

It still felt very odd. Fifteen years of life receded before her. She had just begun to write in the Farsi script when the Domination came and were it not for Elizabeth those ties would perhaps have already long since been sundered. Her childhood, poor in comparison with her life with Beth, still seemed as paradise. A paradise that had come to an end during the brutal suppression of Persia at the hands of the Janissary troops infesting the place after the British Empire had withdrawn. A resistance was attempted, of course, but the barricades in the streets were overwhelmed by tanks, artillery, flamethrowers and Yperite. Among veterans of the Drakian army, Teheran was still sometimes referred to as 'The Hamburger Stand.'

Puran's life had ended there. The janissaries were monstrous in suppressing the Persian people. Only by random chance had Puran escaped--even at the age of seven--being impaled alive as a warning against resistance. Her fate instead was to be gang-raped by a janissary squad and sold into serfdom. She had barely understood what had happened to her, then; it had been torture and pain and horror but the reality of these things had only grown as she understood what had happened fully. Her suitability as an honoured bride was gone and, had she been older, she certainly would have attempted suicide.

She had not been older. Puran had lived and eventually found her way into Elizabeth's hands at the age of thirteen. Beth was already, then, eccentric in the extreme. A military veteran of the Great War, the Central Asian suppressions, the conflict with the Soviet Union and the Third Balkan War, she had entered the military young and fought hard for fourteen continuous years. For the last eight years she had turned to fighting the low-intensity control mission on the tumultuous Arabian border. In 1928 she had volunteered to command one of the special Janissary forces the Security Directorate had established for that conflict, using a mix of Moroccan Rif and then later members of ethnic minorities from the mid-east who had the necessary skills.

Puran, often alone in Elizabeth's manor even before then, during the years of the Third Balkan War, had been given progressively more responsibility and the training to go along with it. And on each rotation home, in the period between each counterraid or tracking expedition, Beth came back and taught her young serf something or another. It had grown strongest when she returned after the conclusion of the Balkan War, and recuperated for some months before accepting the Arabia job and all the danger that came with it. Sometimes, after all, the janissaries made a break for it.

Elizabeth, however, had been to far gone to care about that. Puran had been seventeen when she had first been called into her Mistresses' bedchambers; a distant decade from the horror of her youth, but she could not help the lingering memories. Beth's gentle touch was so different, but the memories in truth were what kept Puran distant from the act, from the affection that so many house slaves showed to their owners even when they were called on for sex. Memories, reinforced by religion, produced guilt and horror.

Still, it had been hard for her not to emote over someone whom she shared everything with; who had given her responsibility and knowledge and ultimately kept her in touch with the culture she had been born in, illicitly and so that it merely, ironically, reinforced her own guilt over their relationship. Harder, still, when she realized how completely Beth had eventually come to depend on her. A loner and someone who hated people in general, it was not surprising that she'd never seriously pursued a relationship with another citizen woman--for what Elizabeth needed was comfort from the harsh nightmares that visited her so often when she rested in a soft bed. To sleep in the desert, she had said, was the only place that she slept in peace.

Puran's mistress--for she still thought of her in those terms even though she had been declared free--had been raised in but the second generation of the modern Domination. Their parents had chaffed at the decision of old men, who still operated ultimately on a philosophy of racial superiourity, to restore the purebred Portuguese from their colonies that had been occupied in 1912. Still, if it hadn't been for that gesture, the last act of chivalry, the implication that we were still part of the European good 'ole boys club, making the gains that we did would have been much harder in the War, Beth's words echoed back from one from of their open conversations that had come of late.

No such mercy had been granted in the Great War, and the revilement of Germany which hid a certain degree of fear still gripped the Domination for the exploits of the infamous Colmar von der Goltz and Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck. Elizabeth's generation had been raised without mercy, compassion, or morality, but they had also been raised to fight backwards, barbaric foes. The shocking ability of the Ottoman Army to hold Drakian forces had put doubt into some--most it simply hardened, some were unaffected, but some remembered the Citizen battalions advancing, triangular bayonets glinting over Ferguson Royal Armoury make SMLEs, into the dust of battle in the Levant--and never coming back.

For generations the Drakian army had been raised on the belief that if they stood together in rank and advanced in unison to the sound of a fife and drum, no enemy could stand against them; and if forced to form square, none could break them. Their new guns--fitted with detachable magazines to improve rate of fire over the British Army version--also had the archaic addition of a ranging sight to allow indirect volley fire against the assumed enemy of a massed tribal hoard. With Mausers, Maxims, and the finest products of Skoda and Krupp, the Turks had quickly dispelled any notion of their being a tribal enemy. But until 1916 there had been no way to deal with them except send massed janissaries into the grinder and overwhelm them by force of arms. Then had come the "storm groups", small numbers of citizens trained to infiltrate the enemy trenches and gain footholds with grenades and bayonets. Elizabeth had volunteered for them, and she had ultimately been forged in that close combat in the trenches.

It was that wreck of a half-mad mind that now led Puran to the chimaera of safety and freedom. Other people like her had been found out and sent to insane asylums. They inevitably happened. To the Drakian mindset, shell-shock was a sign of mental weakness and so many effective casualties had come from dealing with it, which usually meant a firing squad in the field in wartime. To others the changes had been more subtle, and had taken longer to manifest. They would see Elizabeth dead as they had the others, the ones who had spoken up and questioned what they had done with the horrid memories so fresh in their minds: of the roar of artillery and the sight of countless friends, their bodies turned from living, vigorous youth into so much goo. But they would have to catch her first, and Puran found herself with that thought nearly snarling in pleasure at the idea of that gauntlet thrown down to the enslavers of her people.

Beth turned to her, then, with a quizzical look. The darkness and the battered kappe she always wore on the ride obscured her face, but it was clear enough to be taken in and leave Puran glancing back with a slightly guilty expression of her own. "I'm sorry," she stammered, the first word halfway out in English before she corrected to Persian.

"It is quite alright, dear," Beth responded, the look turning into a smile. "As long as you not plotting to kill me in my sleep--unless, of course, you trust the Druze. They think I am supernatural; they have no such illusions about yourself."

"Kill you!?" Her voice squeaked. "I would never imagine.." She caught sight of the smile in the dark and chided herself into silence as Beth laughed softly. The comment, however, cut truer within Puran than she showed. She should, by rights, hate Beth now. She was freedom; duty and guilt did not compel her, did they? But here Beth was, leading her calmly out of the maw of Hell, leaving behind all she owned except for a few trusty horses and camels, a couple sets of desert clothes, and that Emir's sword, leaving behind the nation that for more than two decades she had warred, for her, for Puran, who in her own society would be soiled and unworthy to touch.

With that sacrifice displayed before her proudly, Puran could not hate. Indeed it threw her more into a turmoil over the feelings in her heart for Beth; things that she could not deny existed in some buried form, not anymore, anyway. Now they raged up and threatened to consume her guilt in a simple hero worship at a deed of nobility from one who seemed so black of heart, as if it had soared out of a great Aryan epic like those told by her father when she had been so young. But the uncertainty clung. She knew what her faith and her people would say of this; traditional lingered to leave her heart in turmoil where otherwise she would have flung herself with abandon into the winds of love.

Her musings were, thankfully, cut short by a distant, haunting sound across the desert night. The Druze around them slowed their horses and looked around nervously, wondering if it might be a djinn. Then it sounded again, and Puran recognized it at the same time that Elizabeth did. Beth took her kappe off and waved it in a single to stop that the whole column somehow saw and obeyed. Then she turned to the non-com who rode beside them as well, and smiled with the look of a predator, and spoke in the Arabic that had been universally used since that first night when she informed the Druze of their plan: "Three kilometers from the Hejaz railway."

The man barked out the announcement in repeat to the others of the group, who reined in--first those ahead, who were leading the camels, and then those to the rear who were leading the horses. The camels, unencumbered at the moment, could make the same speed as the weighed-down horses. In turn the horses in the rear guaranteed that the tracks would be churned in their passing, and if any were recognizeable, they would be those of horses only. That would lead any pursuers to assume that they were trying to make it straight for Kuwait, for in the Rub' one had to travel with camels only. Of course the deception might not work--the acquisition of the camels might be detected--but it was worth trying. More importantly, it brought up their speed. The problem was that they would have to cut south in a rocky area to prevent the trail from giving away their direction. For the likes of Beth, however, the chance of that being a real problem was slim.

"Wait five minutes, then advance," Elizabeth ordered next, as she estimated the distance the train had travelled and the speed, distance balanced against the liklihood of another train coming before they were well in the clear on the desert to the other side. Fortunately it was not a double-tracked line, having been only recently expanded to the Drakian standard gauge from the old metric gauge Ottoman line, and that in turn only after the repairs from the early days of T.E. Lawrence's incessant raiding had been made. The order was giving and the column gradually settled out to wait.

Beth turned to Puran then and smiled once more, moving to replace her kappe, the hand then reaching for her old-style watch. "My dear, another six kilometers of danger, and then we shall be free of it for eleven hundred. Are you ready for the deep desert?"

Puran felt her body tense as those words left shivers in her, of anticipation and fear. The desire to be free and the trust that the act had given her in Beth, were enough to overcome the later. Her hands tensed again and those dark eyes gazed out until they saw where the canopy of the heavens met the desert below, the promise of the great sand seas that were to be navigated to safety. They would be out there for months, and they would have to survive off a land as harsh as any imaginable, and further scoured by the Drakian efforts to wipe out the food sources of the bedouin.

It did not matter. For out there beyond that desert was something that seemed more precious than the Gardens of Paradise. Freedom, the word dusted her lips in silent expression from her native Farsi, and in the dim night's starlight she thought she saw Beth repeat it as she looked towards her. It was what she had promised them, that first night in the Negev, the word that had made the Druze draw their swords, without prodding, and swear undying fealty to their Lady. And it was the word that left Puran wondering if she might not drown in love for Elizabeth, after all.

"I am ready, Beth." She finally mustered her answer, so softly; but it was heard, and at the free use of the endearing shortform, Elizabeth's smile grew wider. She turned out to the desert and gazed towards the line. It would be their last obstacle until they were just a few hundred klicks east of Riyadh, and that would be passed when they came to it, not before.

"Then let us have our grand adventure," Beth replied softly. She glanced down to her watch, and grinned as she snapped it closed and replaced it. The free hand the grasped and drew her sword, that fine damascene blade, and she held it high where it caught the soft light of the stars and glinted in the obvious sign of polished medal. The Druze saw the gesture, and understood it. With the only sound the fall of the feet of horses and camels, the faint creak of the leather under strain as they began to move, the small band went forward, into the freedom of the horizon and the dune sea.

Part Two: The Desert Morn under a canopy and an ocean.

There was only one time in her life that Puran had felt more tired and more sore than this, and it was a time that she preferred to never remember; even now the memories were very vague and this experience of pain, thankfully, did not change that. She had ridden for a thousand kilometers across the desert, and seen a thousand lakes, every one of them a mirage. Weary from nights spent in the saddle, countless nights; twenty-five days across the deserts of Araby.

Overhead the canopy of the stars had guided them, a glittering banner of white on black that seemed to taunt them as though the sky itself painted out the banner of the Jihad. They traveled at night and at night, nobody could find them, nor could they lose their way. In the day they vanished into the sand and the aerocraft which droned overhead could not find them. It was easy to find water and what plants as could be eaten by night in the desert; it was hard to hunt.

Slowly, steadily, they were starving. The animals of the desert could consume more of what sparse plants grew there than any human; their meat was vital to survival. Because of this the Dominate had long had a policing of sending up aircraft to gas the herds they spotted, or use Yperite in depressions which had any apparent vegetation. Even so the bedouin managed to scratch by living.

Their numbers in these parts, however, were dwindling. No longer did the great hosts raise the black banner of Jihad, men in their white robes charging forward with suicidal courage against the maxim guns of the Dominate, thousands strong striving to pit their swords against the men before them who stood in rank, bayonets fixed and guns firing, reaping and reaping the lives of the horsemen. But the survivors etched out a life, somehow, where even Elizabeth had difficulty providing for her men—and Puran.

Puran shuddered faintly, as she walked along the rows of the horses, carefully measuring the amount of water that they took and moving on to the next despite their neighing complaints. Only a little ways after crossing the railway they had come across an old battlefield. It was where the forces of the Sharif of Mecca had tried to break through the Drakian forces that had made it across the Jordan and cut the railway to Damascus, back in 1915. It had been more than twenty years ago, and most of the bones of the horses and men were buried by the sand, but they poked up in places, singly or in clusters. Ten thousand horsemen had charged a brigade of Janissaries supported by a battery of 18pdrs and eight maxim guns.

She had viewed the scene with Elizabeth, the desolation of the bones, of the graves known only to Allah and the corpses buried only by the inexorable action of the sand. Elizabeth had looked over the scene for a few minutes and then snapped a salute to the skeletons of the desert. “We have destroyed you, but not conquered you,” she offered with a wan smile, and a distant look, before they moved out once again. Beth was right, though Puran had only realized it later on their long journey. The desert was reclaiming its own.

Puran slipped a bit as she moved on to the next horse. The water splashed a bit; none left the bucket, she had gotten to good at the job for that, to understanding of the preciousness of the fluid. But it splashed her hands and made them hurt. They were raw, for even with riding gloves the sand got within, the sweat festered and the hands were heated and dried and moistened again by the alternating blast furnace and chill of the desert; they were constantly called upon to grip the reins, and eventually they chaffed and blistered. Puran's hands had been in agony for weeks and it was only fading now as they had become hardened to the extremity of the desert.

At last she reached the final horse in the line. There was just enough water to go around to the horses. The camels did not need any and would not for another few days. She turned around and headed towards the artfully camoflauged central tent, shockingly expansive for something that would be indiscernable from a mere thirty feet above it. But perception from the air is greatly skewed, and somehow the Bedouin had found out how to exploit that quite early on—and Beth, in turn, had learned how to imitate it. The sun had not risen yet but it would soon, and people could not move about when it did, for the Draka did indeed have recon aircraft looking for them—almost certainly carrying gas bombs.

Puran half-wondered if she were still living. Her clothes, heavy riding trousers, parthian-cut boots, over-long tunic, and desert robe (with hood), all thick and heavy and well made—they ran thin under the pressure and wear of a month in the desert, and Puran spent much of free time patching and repairing her own; only the robe really didn't require it. There was nothing she could do about her appearance, and if Beth had once admired her for her curves, they were no longer there, though a month in the desert did not match the wear of Beth's years—yet. Still, she was of Aryan blood. The noble set of her face was only accentuated by the brutal demands of the desert, and the lines her ancestors had bred into her, male and female alike, were not unsuited to a month in the saddle.

As she entered their tent, Elizabeth turned to her despite her—to Puran, anyway—soundless approach. She was seated on the heavy rug that was spread over the desert below and served as the floor of the tent, and as she turned she held out a demitasse cup of a light, relaxing tea to her lover. It was of the sort that soothed the body and mind; that rehydrated when water was scarce and drinking to much of it might actually make one sick. Puran was utterly thankful for it as she took it with a dip of her head and lowered herself to the rug, legs folding, to sip of it slowly and carefully, a gift worth more than a camel's load of myrrh here within the deep desert.

“You have held up very well, my dear.” Beth said softly, in a sort of mood where she could not bring herself to waste energy. “I have worried about your ability out here, but you have proven your race worthy of the compliments which Herodotus bestowed upon your ancestors. ..And,” Beth paused there. It was difficult for her to get in the sort of mood where she could confess what she felt for Puran, no matter how heartfelt it was. Her training condemned it, and it was an inner turmoil to overcome that. But she had done in deeds what the words came only in difficulty for.

“Well,” Beth said with an pause: “I had confidence in you, Puran, or else I would not have risked you on this trip. I knew you could do it, I felt..” A weak laugh. “I felt that if you could speak the truth to your mistress then you also had what it takes for the desert. Most of survival here is mental, you know—the faith to persevere.”

“I know,” Puran answered in an equally soft tone and not suppressing the small smile that touched her lips at Beth's awkwardness. “It hurts, still. All of me. But.. It doesn't get in the way of the goal. I don't think anything could, now, Beth—it's a bit hard to explain.”

“It's always hard to explain such things,” Elizabeth replied with a somewhat coy smile, her voice strengthening a bit. “Human beings have the power to shift the world on its axis if they but apply their will sufficiently. I have seen deeds of immortality and I have seen men reduce them to the insanity of 'bushmen'.” Beth stretched out, head settling back against the pillow they shared. They could pull a cloak over themselves if they wished, but it was rarely needed; they slept dressed because there was no warning of when danger might appear, and bathed in sand as Beth's Janissaries did. It was already, after all, omnipresent.

“Let me tell you a story, Puran.” Beth's face still held that coy smile, looking up at that leaned, but yet-youthful face before her. Puran restored her empty demitasse next to the cezve which would be used that evening to brew the strong coffee that fortified them for the ride just as it mellowed them for sleep in the morning. Then she moved to settle beside Beth, propping herself on an elbow.

“I'd love to hear it.” Genuinely said, too. Elizabeth was usually recalcitrant about things that she had experienced or heard, except when they forced themselves out of her, often painfully.

“My Grandfather's name was Hiram Rikkesgarde. He had command of the force that took Sokoto and ended the war with the Caliphate. And ended the Caliphate. You know the official line about it, don't you?”

“Yes—the Caliph and the defenders of the city died flinging themselves into the breach of the walls of Sokoto to try and stop the Janissaries from getting in. Very brave, and no survivors,” Puran answered, though she already had the feeling it was wrong.

“Sort of,” Elizabeth replied. “I think some people have a real idea of what happened. But my grandfather, at any rate, told me before he died. Back when he had been raised, we still had respect for the martial capabilities of the enemies whom we had defeated. But after Odessa it had been revealed how much of that was lost. A lot of old men, rankers in the army—my grandfather included—never accepted that.
“At any rate, it was a very hot fight at the breach. The Fulani fought very well, but they were not a match for our Martinis and the weight of a charge with the bayonet. We lost seventeen officers carrying the breach, back in those days before the machine gun the only way to get Janissaries to really fight was to have their officers lead from the front. The Fulani had French advisors, of course, and the ones who hadn't escaped or been killed earlier were holed up in Sokoto as well.

“In the end we punched through the breach, and it looked like the city was our's. But there were seventeen frenchmen still alive inside, and the Janissaries were still disordered, their officers killed.” A distant look was on her face even as she gazed at Puran, imagining something told by her father some two decades of ago when she'd entered the military herself, a stern last effort by an old man determined that perhaps someone of the latest, cruellest generation could find the stirring of the old ways in her heart. In a way he'd succeeded though it was a way which he had never intended.

“They fired two volleys and charged with the bayonet. Seventeen men, Puran, but we nearly lost the breach. They cut through half a company of Janissaries. Only my father's arrival with a detachment of Citizens saved the breach. Five surviving Frenchmen fell back and started a vigorous fire from inside one of the homes of the city—all mud-brick, like little forts. It was surrounded as the janissaries began the sack, but when the Frenchmen ran out of ammunition the three unwounded men charged again. Three men! That was enough; my Grandfather did something he was not supposed to do, but which he never regretted. He granted the five survivors quarter and once the two wounded had recovered, gave them mounts, food, and instructions on how to reach the Gold Coast.”

The smile returned, then. “That isn't the full story, though. Unlike in the official version—which is really to suspicious when one thinks about it, but has become accepted, so that's that—there were prisoners among the defenders. Grandfather refused to take them back to Cape Town for the usual victory parade. He returned to them their swords and had them shot, that they could die armed and without incurring the sin of suicide. That was, I think, the last gesture of mercy to a defeated enemy that was ever committed in the Domination.

“We have changed from those days that we glorify. We have become something else—something that has forgotten that our opponents, also, have courage and will. We taunt and torture to death the enemy leaders we capture, forgetting that those of their race have just committed splendid and valiant feats of courage. I.. I remember myself when the Turks would counterattack—counterattack!--when we were making our last big push to break through into the Anatolian plateau.”

Her voice faltered there, for now she spoke of those things she remembered herself, and which haunted her still and always would. Puran, with the long instinct of years, rolled closer to Beth and wrapped an arm around her gently, comforting. “You don't need to tell that, also, Beth. I am grateful just for your story of your grandfather.”

“No, I need to tell it,” Elizabeth answered, if a bit unsteadily. “Someone has to tell it. We are trying to kill a memory that does not deserve to be killed, Puran. That is the real crime of my people.. Our system has forced us to deny what deserves to be remembered. It was on one of the last days, Puran, before we broke their lines. Their communications with the Central Powers had been severed; their own production of ammunition was very slight and they were very low on it. For the most part they held us off in those last days by the bayonet and their willingness to counterattack with it.

“It was a superhuman feat, what those conscript battalions of poor Turkish peasants accomplished. They knew they were doomed and so they chose how to die. It happened on a sector of the line where we were preparing to attack. They attacked first. It was a surprise—but only because they had no artillery shells left there to fire in support. I can see it now: A single officer stepped over the parapet, gesturing with his arms, forward, forward. He did not hurry; he just started walking, right towards our trenches.

“For a moment some of my comrades around me thought he was coming to surrender. But then, behind him, swelled a whole mass of men. Their guns were silent, their bayonets fixed, and they came forward at a dog-trot, line after line, perhaps two whole divisions concentrated on a short span of the front. We tore through them with everything we had. I never saw what happened to that officer; I was to busy fighting for my life. Surely we shot down three-fourths of them before they reached our trenches, but the other fourth was at us with bayonet and grenade.

“We were in the last line of trenches, and even there the fighting was heavy; they overran both lines of trenches and just a thin communications trench was in the way of the last of the men. One of them, gut-shot and dying, was sprawled over the far side of the communications trench. He asked me what was beyond him, and I told him; in my shock and doubt I could not find the contempt to deny him the question. 'Division headquarters,' I replied, and he smiled a bit and died.”

Beth reached out and stroked through the sand-streaked and sun-bleached hair that Puran now sported, that once luxurious black changed somewhat by the sun upon it. “After that, I remembered what my Grandfather had told me, and I started to wonder just how such men could be our inferiors in life when they matched us in death. In the end I gave up reconciling that, as you have discovered, my love.”

“I believe you in that,” Puran replied, gently, not abandoning her closeness to Elizabeth, knowing how fragile that state of mind of her's really was. “But I must wonder why your people did not learn it.”

“Victory and death made them mad. The trenches do that—they drive people mad, to be in them, to experience the barrage of the artillery upon them. To wait for the moment to go over the top in full knowledge of what that means. We were taught to hate our enemies, and in the end, their courage has just made us hate them more until we were consumed by it. We have forgotten that they, too, also have the Will to Power, and someday I fear my people will learn to regret their negligent memories.”

“Is that why you are leaving?” Puran could not hide a trace of sharpness in her voice at the question, questioning the entire motive, despite her desire not to press Elizabeth to much. Her face flickered in perhaps worry, or perhaps anger, for a moment.

“No, no.” A very tired look. “I do so love you, Puran, and I know what you desire... And I know that, I believe that, I could not find it in my heart to have such affections for someone who was not my equal. And I was right; this is the triumph of your Will. You have conquered an-Nafud and now you shall have your chance to also conquer the 'Rub.”

Abruptly she grasped tightly onto Puran, such a swift and vicious movement—thought it did not hurt at all—that Puran exhaled sharply in surprise. But even as she did Elizabeth pulled her ontop of her own self, eyes gleaming in the dim light of dawn that pierced through the tent. “But first, my love, we shall have to get across the Riyadh railway. I gave you the eleven hundred kilometers of safety I promised: Now we shall have a hundred of danger.”

Looking into those wild and intense eyes, Puran shivered, and she knew not if it was from fear—or if it was from excitement. She was not sure that she cared, either...

Part Three: The Railroad

My beloved is brighter than the sun,
Put in the heavens, my only one.
Placed the hearts upon the earth
To watch the sun's daily run.

When the sun breaks the horizon in the desert, and casts the morning shadow, things seem slow, as if the angle of the light bends the very nature of time itself. Everything is in stark relief, but the weather is mild and the wavering of the heat off the sand has not yet begun, though it will soon. The desert has but short periods of mercy from its inclement extremes.

They were about a hundred kilometers west of al-Riyadh, as the column came to a halt. Their outriders had spotted the railroad ahead and, pressing as close to it as she dared, Elizabeth had ordered a halt as the sun rose into the heavens, as far into the day and as close to the line as could be achieved with any semblence of safety. The sky was odd that morning, too, and as they made camp Elizabeth did not help, as she had the previous times. Instead she stood, sometimes holding her kappe in hand and sometimes wearing it, always watching the sky.

Puran approached her, hair drawn back and concealed under the hood of her robe, and Elizabeth did not, at first, turn to notice her. But at last she did, and offered a tight smile. “Are you holding up alright, my dear?”

“I..” Her voice faltered, throat feeling cracked and painful. They were running low on water—and food, and everything else—and it was telling. Her hands had gotten over the desert but it seemed like the latest trouble was just now beginning, though she remained confident that this, too, would pass. In that spirit Puran struggled to speak, and then watched in silence as Beth took her canteen and offered it to Puran with a kind smile on her face—one, though, that seemed faintly tainted with.. An indiscernable clouding of her features.

“Drink as much of it as you want, Puran.” Looking up, she continued. “It is going to rain. A lot.”

Puran first drank of the water, relieving the parched nature of her throat; but as she did she saw the expression on Beth's face tighten, and relieved of her thirst, spoke: “Is that not a good thing? But you are troubled, and sorely so, Beth.”

“If there's a washout in one of the Wadis, they'll be sending a repair crew. A heavily defended repair crew—they would be unable to tell, of course, if it was a washout or sabotage by the bedouin. And they'll know right away, too. They run a low powered electric current through the tracks, and when the circuit is broken it'll provide immediate warning. That means that we shall have to get across tonight, during the rains.”

“Will there be any problems with that?” Puran asked, quietly.

“I'm not sure. We had better hurry, though. Sometimes the wind driving rain clouds across the desert will kick up a sandstorm before the rain comes. The animals must be prepared appropriately and every one of the tents checked.”

Puran dipped her head slightly, a habit that was not easily wearing off. “Of course; I'll go tell Hafiz..” She started to turn, having learned, at least, not to wait for dismissal any longer.

“A moment.”

Puran paused and looked back to Elizabeth, and saw her with a particular sort of look on her face, sly and appreciative—despite, or perhaps because of, all of the wear that the trip had put on Puran!--as she had not been, as she had forced down for the past month. Just the look alone made her heart catch a bit.

“This day, I can guarantee to myself that there will be no planes, and no searches. So draw us a little water.. For later. Hafiz will know the rains are coming, and will not comment.”

Puran flushed in a way she had almost never done before, the shame in her so long ago forced inside by brutality. It was not because of the innuendo in the words but rather, perhaps, because of some real desire in her own body that she could not deny. Unsure if she should be pleased or ashamed of herself, she simply nodded, and turned away to find Hafiz in some unusual haste, Elizabeth smiling as she watched that lithe form go, as though a racing gazelle, and then turning her attention back to the camp.

Bidâr,” called a voice that seemed to haunt at her dreams. After a month of speaking Farsi exclusively to Puran, and only Arabic otherwise, it was haunting—and familiar. Beth stirred and as she did she recognized instantly the sound that had left her dreams dark. Rain, blessed rain, lashed at the tent. The storm was upon them.

Puran smiled at her, somewhat shyly and halfway indiscernable in the dark, the elegant turkish cezve before her with two cups, and her form looking lush and exotic, nude in the dark of the tent and the dusk, dark hair draped down her back. For the first time in a month they were clean, among other things. And Puran had beaten Elizabeth to waking; that rarity alone warmed her as much as the scent of the coffee.

“Yek qahvé biâr,” Beth said, rising smoothly and silently on muscles that, somehow, seemed rather less sore than they had. Puran nodded at the words, smiling still, and silently poured one of the demitasse cups full—the sugar and cardamom mixed whilst it was brought nearly to a boil and now held ready and hot, a fine foam rising over the rich darkness of the brew.

“Ân migiri,” Puran replied as she gave the demitasse to Beth and then settled back down, watching as Beth drank of it, the brew more oozing than not, so strong was it. Beth drank of it and dressed at the same time, in the hasty and swift fashion that she was accustomed to, the coffee burning the sleep from her, despite it being the last gasp of evening, with a flavourful intensity.

Dressed, Elizabeth turned to where Puran was finishing her own coffee. They would have to get moving, soon. “Asbâb-e-mân hâzer kun.”


Elizabeth headed out whilst Puran dressed, and then packed and prepared their baggage for the latest part of the trip. The rain outside, and the wind, was still frightfully intense; it would, however, last for a few more minutes at most. Even so the ground was already soaked beyond its capacity and large puddles in the low ground were visible. One could, over the rain, just faintly hear a Wadi perhaps a kilometer off which was now as full as a rushing English brook in springtime flood.

Hafiz, the senior centurion, was already overseeing the preparations to break camp when Elizabeth strode out into the intensity of the rain. It was a chaotic process in that sort of weather but in what seemed like just a minute the rain abruptly ceased as swiftly as it had come. A torrential downfall had showered the desert, and now the rain might well not come for another month. Everything had been prepared, though, and this now meant that they had all the water that they might need.

Food was another problem, but it could be solved. Elizabeth busied in getting their mounts ready, their pack horses and the camels. Considering the disproportionate ratio of humans against animals it was a lot of work for one person to prepare all of the beasts of burden assigned to the two of them, but she did it and entrusted Puran to their tent and kit. The process of moving out was so ingrained in them, by long history of experience and now by a month in the saddle, that it came as easily as a morning walk now.

Elizabeth led the horses over to where Puran by now had their baggage packed and the tent taken down and ready for loading. Even without prior experience, a month of hardship had been enough for her in that regard and there was a faint swelling of pride in her breast at Puran's confidence as she loaded the pack horses and mounted up. A look was exchanged there, and it spoke more than the words which were neither necessary nor advisable, even if the men could not speak Farsi.

“Form up!” Elizabeth called out, voice pitched to carry in the preternatural silence of the freshly fallen night of the desert, the air yet pleasantly damp—as it would hopefully be through all of the night's ride. What had once been a camp was now a mobile formation of cavalry, and that transformation had taken place in short minutes.

Riding out ahead of the column, Puran at her side, Elizabeth could not help feel a rising confidence against the danger of the moment, the uncertainties out here where a war was very much still being fought. And their uncertain condition if any band of bedouin might fall upon them. But for the moment it did not matter:

“Be ready, my faithful; for tonight we cross the railroad, and then there is nothing ahead of us!” Except for the 'Rub, of course, but there was no need to bring that up—yet.

A long column of camelry rode through the desert, coming up from the south. At their head was a tall man, of full beard, wearing the tradition robes and kaffiyeh. A sword was girt at his side, and his face held a look in it of a distinctly un-Arab determined confidence, Will triumphing over fate. The men who followed him had their expressions veiled, both in the heart and in reality. They wore white robes, and their faces were masked by black veils. They were al-Ilkwan-ul-Mujahideen al-Islami-ul-Hajj. The Brotherhood of Holy Warriors of the Pilgrimage of Islam.

Every one of these men had taken an oath before Allah to die fighting for the restoration of the Hajj, and continuously wore the black veil as a sign of their commitment to martyrdom. Upon donning the veil they were as already martyred, all refering to each other only by names proclaiming themselves to be the slave of one of the ninety-nine names of God, and among themselves, as brothers. They did not acknowledge their families or clans—though for many they no longer existed, all but destroyed in the desperate resistance--and all strove to die in combat against the Drakian pagan Infidels. No level of trickery was below them and no act of courage on the field of battle above them, for they had already given up their lives. No one knew how many of them etched out life in the Arabian deserts, waiting for the chance to strike home a blow against the Dominate, but the most pessimistic Drakian analysts thought there were ten thousand. They were wrong. There were twenty-five thousand.

This column of camelry was moving into position against the railway, essentially to their jumping-off point carefully concealed amidst the dunes. There was an airship guarding the approaching repair trains, as usual. But the men of the desert had learned, and had been taught. They knew, now, that in the heat of the sun the airship would be strained to maintain altitude as the expansion of the lifting gas forced the steady venting of reserves to lower pressure inside the hydrogen cells. If that airship descended for low-level bombing, it would not come back up.

Of course, the Drakians had a solution to that. They just fitted the airships with gas bombs. Against the gas bombs the warriors who rode out that day had their own, starkly simple solution. They prayed to Allah and trusted in the Shamal, their veils soaked to provide some degree of protection against gas. It was the Shamal that would do most of the work. For nine months they had waited before launching a large scale raid like this. They had waited for the northwesterly wind which brings the dust storms up in the desert and blows with its indomitable fury across the whole of the land. The troop, thus, was attacking from the southeast.

One man, a volunteer among these committed fanatics, was forward, alone. It was this single fellow, Abd'ul-Ba'ith, 'The Slave of the Resurrector', who's job was to take out one of the armoured trains. He watched them approach from a small, camoflauged foxhole about a hundred yards south of the track and connected by wire to the spot where, over those nine months when large-scale attacks had been unfavourable without the steady support of the prevailing Shamal and its intense power across the desert, small bands of bedouin men had snuck up to the track in the night to carefully work on the emplacing of a massive blackpowder mine in the firm ground created where the shifting sands (so much shallower here on the edge of the Nejd than in the deep desert) had been cut away during the building of the railroad.

The lead train, by necessity, had been the repair train since the last siding as the washed-out Wadi was approached—washed out in the sense that the bridge had been thoroughly weakened as the storm approached by the men of the column, first. But the repair crews would find out the evidence of that far to late. It was pushed slowly by a massive 4-8-2+2-8-4 “Garratt” type 59 articulated compound engine developing nearly 85,000lbs of tractive effort. The massive engine was of a type still seen on coal drags in the Domination but largely banished from main-line service with the coming of electrification.

The length of the set of cranes and equipment cars was not create, but pushing was a bit more delicate for the couplings than pulling, and the speed up to the break had been a leisurely 25kmh as the repair train and two armoured trains in support ran up to the breach from Riyadh. The repair train passed over the mine, and nothing happened. It was going very slowly, now, men riding alongside it upon horses, janissaries, wielding what looked like polo-sticks but which were actually prodding for mines or wires. They did not find it.

The second train passed over it perfectly, the first of the armoured trains. Abd'ul-Ba'ith waited again. That train and the one that followed it were both pulled by two Type 59s each, heavily modified and armoured at that, a series of armoured cars between them loaded with everything from light machineguns to 100mm howitzers. The second armoured train now moved on to the spot in the tracks that Abd'ul-Ba'ith had memorised so perfectly. He judged the distance by sight alone, and needed nothing else. The plunger was depressed with a slight click, and the circuit completed.

It seemed to happen in slow motion. The lead engine of the second armoured train vanished in a cloud only for the boiler, sundered from the rest, to appear at the top of the cloud, hundreds of feet in the air. Abd'ul-Ba'ith's position was covered in dust and pounded by the blast. A massive driving wheel was sent flying across the desert for a distance of more than a kilometer, flung like a discus of the gods. Bits of metal and rock and bodies rained down as dust consumed the sky. The roar hit, thundering across dozens of kilometers of desert and leaving no mistake of what had just happened, a crater where there had once been a railway. The bedouin had succeeded rather better than they had hoped to.

Somehow, despite the intensity of the explosive just a few hundred feet from it, the rear engine of the train was intact and still on intact track. But a tangled ruin of the armoured cars behind it pinned it down to that position. The engineer was a fast one, leaping up coalbox at the rear of the compound and screaming at the top of his lungs, over the cries of the wounded, shouts of confusion, and paranoid gunfire that were already developing, addressing his dazed firemen and the survivors of the cars immediately behind the intact engine.

“Git her uncoupled, yah damned dirty kaffirs! Git her free now, ar I damned leave yah fer yah balls t'be chopped off by t'bliddy Arabs!” He drew his service pistol for effect and pointed it at the dazed slaves, who understood the threat despite their shock, and in some case wounds, and hastily organised a working party under the senior fireman to wrench the engine free from the derailed car nearest it, where the pressure from the crazy angle blocked the normal release of the coupler.

It happened just like the engineer expected. From the crest of a high sand dune flanking one of the gullies to the south that ran into the Wadi proper, came a terrifying shout which any fighting man of the Draka could recognize, having been in this parts long enough.

Allah, Akbar!!”

Allah, Akbar!!”

They looked almost glorious as they crested the dune, lashing their camels on to an odd sort of gallop, some firing their mausers into the air, all of them wooping and hooting and shrieking and crying out their battle-call. The serfs redoubled their efforts, while on the intact train men were disgorged from the cars to drop down to prone positions alongside the track, readying their rifles, and the casemated 50mm guns on the trailing car swung around and opened fire first, the turreted 75 following moments later. But the Arab camelry was already charging down the side of the dune, terribly close.

The repair train was already reversing itself, trying to get within the closest possible protective range of the remaining armoured train and fearing attack from ahead. The two trains were blocked on the track and the only support they would receive would be from the airship overhead, which could not deploy gas thanks to the fact that it would blow directly into the Drakian forces and be worse than useless in so doing. It was down to the guns of that one train, and they made a splendid show of it.

The engineer of that surviving engine on the second train waited tensely as the Arabs closed, standing up and screaming obscenities at the desperately working serfs, recklessly uncaring as the bullets singed past his body and the Arabs swept closer. At last the serfs leaped back as the coupler was freed and the car behind the great engine creaked and tilted as it was freed of the great pressure and weight that had been holding it, derailed, still mostly upright. The serfs let out a ragged cheer and dashed to leap on the sides of the big Type 59. They knew better than to expect the engineer to wait for them, and they were right.

He turned at once and crossed the distance to the cab in a few desparate running paces. Out of the corner of his eye he could see the action, the shells exploding behind or around or amongst the Arabs, now clearly the black-veiled suicide men. Many of them fell, tumbling off their camels which rolled up, equally broken by the shrapnel, amongst their bodies. The machineguns opened fire and it seemed like the whole of the first rank toppled, save that one tall man, the leader, whom remained stoicly upright, lashing his camel on forward and not bothering to even draw a sabre as he closed with the enemy.

Then he was back in the cab, and threw open the throttles immediately, all the way. The firebox was still incredibly hot, even not having been stoked for several minutes, and there was more than enough starting power. The massive driving wheels spun with a horrid noise as they refused to catch on the track, the senior fireman turning to haul his assistant aboard. Then with a great lurch the drivers caught and they were off, building up speed to escape with a painful slowness.

The Arabs had naturally swung in against the track to eliminate the favourable angles to the guns of the remaining train, which had a limited ability to fire toward the van or rear. This meant they were deathly close to the escaping Type 59 and they fired into it and closed with their steel as it began to move. The engineer leaned out of the cab, firing his service pistol at them. It seemed as if several men fell, but others swung up alongside the train, spearing the desperate serfs hanging to it. Two men were not content with that and daringly leaped up onto the moving training before it had gathered to much speed so as to outpace their camels. The engineer ejected his clip and slammed in another as they stumbled their way towards him across the coalbox.

He leaped up from behind the natural cover of the coalbox, firing, and one man screamed and rolled off the engine, his white robes stained red. A round from the other's mauser creased the engineer's ear as he leaped back for cover. Just feet separated them, and the remaining man took the chance and raised forward, leaping down with his bayonet at ready. He slammed into the engineer, the blade tearing through the man's left shoulder just above the heart and pinning him down—even as the engineer's pistol fired again and again into the jihadi's gut. The man died with a disturbingly beautific expression as the engineer gritted his teeth to free himself of the bayonet, the firemen shoveling coal with a single-minded desperation as the Type 59 raced free of the battle at what had to be close to 100kmh, now.

Behind, the Arabs had reached the crater before the janissary rifle detachments could deploy to that newly-created defensive position, and dismounting, charged forward using the cover it provided. They fired from the hip and worked the actions of their rifles as they ran, in truth not much more than a light suppressing fire against the work of the single MG on the water tank of the trailing Type 59 which could bear at that angle and close distance. Their odd leader led them up out of the crater, somehow surviving the intense fire directed at him, though not unwounded, to drive home the attack with bayonet and grenade which silenced the machine gun.

Immediately the Arabs rushed forward to both sides of the train, many sacrifice themselves in reckless attacks that brought their comrades forward, their fire constant and suppressive to achieve their main goal of getting in range to dispatch their opponents in the honoured hand to hand tradition or simply blow themselves up with bundled grenades and take the infidels with them. It was bloody and costly work, but these men had come here not to attack, but to die.

Overhead the airship hovered, helpless thanks to meteorology to do more than lend the use of its better radio transmission power to appeal for aide. But it was only helpless as long as the fight was at close quarters. If the attackers retreated in any direction but to the northwest they could be gas bombed successfully, and to retire to the northwest they would have to cut themselves off from their line of retrat. That meant they would have to hold that position until nightfall.

Part Four: Ride to the Guns!

An armoured train had been brought up to each side of the gap in the line. Though their firing arcs were limited they still had some heavy artillery which was being directed on the Arab position. From each train and from the trains which followed them came easily hundreds of Janissary troops. These men, however, had to cross the Wadi and the Crater to reach the position of the Arabs. Both of these obstacles were naturally defended and both of them took a horrible toll on the Janissaries.

As it stood now the Janissaries had to either advance to the crater and through it, or from the other side, clamber down the side of the Wadi and then back up; at ranges close enough that the Arabs could pitch grenades down onto them while they were at their most vulnerable. The bodies were soon stacked high in those obstacles. The Drakian forces had then turned to outflanking the Arabs. But to the flanks of the disabled train the Arabs had brought the guns into action—intermittently and with poor aim, but it was some serious artillery against a strictly infantry force.

Within an hour into the battle the first strafing attack had been made. The ungangly second-rate aircraft, biplanes, dove to drop 100kg bombs and fire their machineguns. These tore up the Arab formation quite good, but there were only eight plans, sixteen bombs, and their protection was good; cover available around, on, and under the disabled train. After this the planes did not return, though the Arab commander knew that they would almost certainly do so once more before nightfall.

His hostages, what the Draka sought, were not kept in good condition; they were at least kept alive. Really they simply served as insurance that their position would not be gassed until they could escape in the dark. An elite citizen team might have tried to rescue them, save that such men would really be quite useless in these circumstances. The Arabs would blow them up first—and themselves. So more traditional tactics were required in an effort to contain them, and even then the Drakian commander knew that there was little hope. Yet it still had to be tried, for the Draka did not leave Citizens behind for the dogs to tear at their carcasses.

These men, given up to death, were not that; they fought much better than the average Arab, even if their cohesion was bad and their fire discipline apalling—the later making their bolt-action rifles a benefit, not a hindrance. The uneven contest was maintained for some time, the numbers of the Arabs dwindling from their battalion-strength down into the hundreds. These warriors died silently, perhaps with a cried prayer, dropping in their places like stones, their ammunition retrieved by their comrades. The screams of the Janissaries contrasted themselves unmanfully, but then they had no choice in their fight.

An outflanking manoeuvre was attempted again; this time in strength. The Janissaries were pushed past the defensive fire into close range, against the embarkments of the railway's right-of-way. Here the Arab commander appeared out in the open, rallying his men, encouraging them to resort to bayonets with the infidel. In his grand and flowing robes and kaffiyeh he was an obvious target; yet he did not appear to be wounded, or at least hid his wounds well. His style was not as one might expect of an Arab chief, in his determined and confident air, yet the Draka could not quite identify him.

Despite this, by the time the night was dawning, nervous—or eager--whispers of “Lawrence” might heard at various places in the Arabian command. His location had been unknown for some time, but such a grand attack, and against the railroad, was very much in his style, flinging a battalion out of the desert to destroy so much, to savage the railway and three heavily armed and manned trains. But he was usually able to escape without such a pitched fight; perhaps this would be their chance at last to catch the English bastard? Had they done enough this time?

Those thoughts did not last among the commanders on the scene, certainly. They had more than enough troops, yet they were still being wasted badly, and night was coming on. In the end the senior officer on the scene decided to tighten up a perimeter and try hold them in it as the night fell. This forced the Janissaries to work against the opposite flank as well, and they suffered in doing it, though perhaps some of their effort was rewarded by the Arab belief that it was another attack, and they suffered higher casualties as they exposed themselves to meet it for a while before their commander ordered them back in close to the improvised and accidental defences.

Smoke from the rapid-fire of the Mausers obscured the wavering image of the setting sun across the baked desert sand. The banner of Jihad hung limp in the dead air, ragged from shrapnel and cut through by bullets. It still clung to the air, though, as the symbol of the force which stubbornly held their positions against the best efforts of scientific war. At last the night was coming. The great sphere was vanishing beneath the lisp of the sky. Yet from that sky, from the coast at Mecca, there was the drone of aircraft. This time ten of them came on against the Arab position.

Scores were cut up by the bombs and the firing of the machineguns, which completed the effectual wrecking of the trapped railway trains. The Arabs did not flee or try to cover themselves, instead firing constantly at their enemies to prevent the Janissaries from closing in and taking their casualties manfully; yet those casualties were most certainly quite severe. The airplanes could not, at least, strafe for very long. These old designs were at the limit of their tolerance out over the empty desert here, and without the light they could not effectually fight. When they had cleared the scene and for a moment the guns fell silent, the Arab commander knew it was time.

Dead bodies would have to be left; their souls were with Allah and they did not have enough live camels to carry them all besides. A few men were assigned to leading the camels and then the rest prepared to charge south against the Janissary flanking units. The sky revealed clearly the stars above, in densities that no city-dweller could ever imagine. They provided a dim light in this land of the fast-setting sun, the only light that would be available for their charge. Preparations were simple. A single barrage was prepared from all the operational heavy guns. The camel-holders got the animals up and ready to move. And then the order was given, the guns were fired, and the men got up and charged forward in two waves. One advanced as the other fired from the top of the embankment down at their prone enemies until the last moment—or a bit beyond it.

Allah Akbar!

Allah Akbar!

Without any trenches the Janissaries were horribly exposed. They had to fire at a target at a higher elevation than they were which was firing back—at their excellently exposed bodies. Stripper-clips were stroked and bolts thrown with such a vigorous fervour that sometimes the guns jammed from lack of ability to extract the cartridges so quickly. This fire was ridiculous in how badly it was aimed, but it served to keep the heads of the Janissaries down where a better force might not have been deterred.

The Arab Commander knew that his force did not have long. Even as the first wave hit the spread-out firing lines of the Janissaries he sent the rest of the men forward, the firing ceasing. The camel holders followed next. And it was then, when the heavy firing ceased, that the order was given by the Draka to send up starshells. The sky turned a hideous brilliant white from the intense burning of the shells which streaked bright through the night. In this unnatural illumination the heavy machineguns opened fire on the breakout.

Ignoring the danger to the Janissaries from the crossfire the big machineguns swept through the night into the Arab force, concentrating especially on the camels so vital to their survival. The damage done to the animals struck was truly horrible, and there was not the time to give them even the pity of a bullet. But it was incredibly demoralising to be under fire from their own guns; this finally broke the Janissaries and insured that the Arabs would break clear.

The fire continued for as long as the gunners even thought that they were in sight, the stutter of the machineguns constant, the distant and silhouetted forms of the Arabs in their flowing robes falling to the fire as though they were barely real, rather just wraiths of the desert. And then they became just that, vanishing into the night, into the deceptively undulating terrain, beyond the reach of even the illumination of the starshells to catch them. The Janissaries moved forward at once to the ruins of the trains, and found there the freshly dead corpses of the citizen hostages, their testicles cut off and stuffed into the gaping wounds torn in their throats, penises sliced through and stuffed into their mouths. The Drakian commander had not expected much else; at least the number of dead camels was high. It was quite possible they could catch some or even all of the force in a pursuit, and so one was ordered.

As the day turned into evening, and the short evening of the desert into the night, Elizabeth awoke early. She could hear something that Puran's ear, untrained by long usage, could not. It was a sound which brought her to nightmares and she woke up at first in a cold sweat, but that fear was replaced by the iron grip of discipline upon her soul when she realized that the sound was real and not a part of her troubled past and troubled memory.

It was the sound of artillery fire from over the horizon—from the railroad they had passed the night before. A battle was on. She listened in silence, even as Puran moved against her comfortably in her sleep, and an arm instinctually went about her, drawing her close, as her mind tried to focus, to think on the situation which she had hoped to avoid. Hoped to avoid? She asked herself; there was some genuine delight in the prospect...

“Why'd you wake up?” Asked a gentle and sleepy voice beside her, startling her for only a moment before she chided herself. Puran, after all, had her own criteria for waking early, and Elizabeth's nightmares were one of them.

“Not the usual,” Beth answered rather wryly. “The thunder of the guns is real this time.”

Puran was fully awake in a start. “The guns?” Straining her ears to hear she probably just guaranteed that she could not, and her alarm faded after a few moments of intensity.

“Artillery on the railroad. It's probably been going on for some time, for I did have an unsettled night.” Beth pushed herself up. “You never forget how to recognize it, after you have been in the trenches—and I know that it's just the right range, too.”

“I believe you,” Puran reassured with a smile that was more felt by Beth than seen in the swiftly darkening interior of the tent. She rose halfway as well, clinging to the older woman. “You have not started hallucinating yet, after all.”

A chopped laugh. “That, at least, I have not. But there is a battle going out there, my dear. And there are few sorts of engagements in the desert which could warrant such artillery. I.. We must muster the camp now.”

Puran's eyes filled with fear, a sort of dread rather than instinctual fright, as her memory unkindly dredged up that field of parched and largely buried bone for her. “We're riding to the sound of the guns, aren't we?”

“Not quite,” Beth replied, a faint grin touching her lips until in the remaining dim glow she caught Puran's look. “Don't worry, dearheart. I will not lead us into range of the guns. If I am right we will not have to; and if I am wrong it shall not matter one way or the other.”

Puran looked sharply for a moment, and then simply shrugged. “I have trusted you this long.” The words did not reinforcement; she simply turned and prepared for riding. Elizabeth looked on with a fond look half on her face for a moment and then turned to prepare, herself. As she did Puran was already going to pack up such gear as they had in the tent. There would be no coffee that eve, not in this haste which propelled Elizabeth out of the tent only short seconds later.

This left Puran to her fears, which were in some ways just and in some ways, she knew, not so just to Elizabeth. There was a look in the woman's eyes when combat was mentioned, a strange mixture of fear and longing. Puran wanted the future, somehow. Germany, she knew, would at least ignore them, and perhaps even accept them. There could be something there—the chance for a peaceful life, the time for her to understand her own emotions without these pressures. Her's, and how she felt for Elizabeth, in a sanctuary of calm away from the turmoil, away from the horror of her own memories, and perhaps, just perhaps, away from the influence which corrupted the Draka and had corrupted Beth so nearly completely, whatever it was.

Her work taking down the tent and packing everything up distracted her from the fears of what seemed that dark half of Elizabeth, the part determined to drag her down even if it was in opposition to her own people, something that couldn't be left or forgotten as she wished. There was danger there... But then perhaps she had always been attracted to that, as well. The faint sigh she made was unheard over the noise of preparing the camp to move. She secured their gear to the pack horses and mounted up her own as Elizabeth came riding over, the cool mask of command relaxing a bit.

“I want to head east a bit, Puran, and cross the Wadi. There should be a track there, somewhere, and if we find that... Well, we won't go any closer to the railway than that either way.”

“What do you think there is there?” Puran blurted out, the chance to probe into the unsettling behavior that was given, being immediately taken by a hesitant and uncertain mind.

The undignified tone was politely avoided. “I think there will be a force retreating along it, and if we are good about our riding we may have an excellent chance to help them come clean away. But we shall need some reconaissance and the risk of leaving the camels behind with some drivers. You, dearheat, will stay with me. I do not trust the Druze that far.” A faint grin.

Satisfied—if the last comment was completely unhelpful--Puran fell in as the order was given for the column to start off, at Elizabeth's side as she had always been, it seemed, in those weeks in the desert which had stretched into eternity. She was glad to be going even with the danger that was implied. Orders were quietly relayed and when the column started it seemed smaller, barely seventy people alone in the desert, though the strength in rifles was nearly the same, and that for the moment was what counted.

The engagement was general along the Wadi. The Arabs were defending, without enough camels to ride clear, and the Janissary infantry, though very fearful of the deep desert, had been led in this far by their officers and made a good enough of a pursue to now corner the Arabs and force a pitched engagement. In this they were definitely being worsted and all the efforts of their commander could not change that.

It was hard for the dead to fight, and in the case of these men committed to dying they perhaps had to little will for survival to fight a rearguard action like this. Yet they were killing infidels, and that at least kept them from breaking as a lesser motivated force might have. They had left a trail of dead bodies and here they would either leave no more or leave them all.

The Janissaries pressed forward very well now, with the confusion of a night action being the principle hindrance. It was a night action in which an ordered body of troops, by a brief contact with the enemy, or by a single shot, accidental or otherwise, might be disordered at once. The brave lose their hearts in the night and the weak are given to panic. Disciplined armies, forced into action in the night, have completely collapsed before. Yet here the Janissaries were held together, chewing coca for stamina as they fired and advanced and died.

The Arab position seemed quite hopeless, with the battle coming into close quarters. Their only hope was surely to break the Janissaries at the bayonet, but the Arabs were not good with cold steel when they faced an enemy as disciplined as they were; the charge against a disordered group of soliders not in formation along the rail line was anomalous at best and perhaps just lucky. Now they would again need such luck, or favour from Allah, and they somehow got it.

Fire was opened into the rear of the Janissaries. Several officers were shot down outright, and the effect of a single shot in the night was multipled incredibly by the effect of a fusillade into the rear of a formation in the night. At that, the fire was much better aimed than that of the Arabs and it had a telling effect. For a moment there was silence to the rear following the fusillade, and the surviving officers tried to get the formation reoriented in the dark. Advancing they were fine; told to defend themselves from two directions the Janissaries collapsed.

Of course this was to be expected. The officers of the Janissaries were wounded or had had their comrades shot down. They were in the rear and under fire themselves. They saw it to be a very accurate fire for a night engagement, one that came rapidly and in good order, unlike the fire of the Arabs. But there could be no enemies here other than Arabs. The conclusion from that was that it had to be an Arab force—just an absolutely vast one, with no doubt many more unnoticed shots going wild. Panic set in.

As the formation tried to reorient, the fire from the Arab positions redoubled and, quite simply, the Janissary lines fell apart. As units stumbled together in the dark to turn to their own rear they were transformed into a useless jumble of men who, without officers, without their NCOs, simply fled, to get out of the crossfire somehow. In just minutes the entire Janissary force had collapsed with a shocking totality. A few officers succeeded in rallying a few men around them. Yet these men were not idiots; caught in such a crossfire they did not try to stand their ground but rather used the night to their advantage in turn to lead those groups clear of the action.

The battle was over and somehow the Arabs had survived. Hesitantly their commander went forward, mounted first out of sake of his dignity, aware that random shots or mistaken identity might threaten his life. Then from out of the dim he saw the form of riders, barely revealed by the stars of the night's sky. A challenge was called out in Arabic and the Arab commander, relieved, was more than able to give the correct answer in the correct tongue.

Elizabeth watched as the rider approached calmly, a statuesque man in his robes upon his camel. She brought her horse gently forward with Puran holding to her side. Beth regretted taking her for the sixteenth or twentieth time, especially now, with danger of mistaken identity or ambuscade. But Puran clung to her and that was that. And so they rode up together to the Arab force's leader.

The horses shied away a bit from the camel, but the camel's rider expertly nudged it in and gazed for a moment, clearly surprised—briefly at any rate—to see two definitely female faces. Even in the dim glow of the starlight he could see enough, then, of Elizabeth and Puran. Calmly he reached up and pulled off his kaffiyeh, though in fact the movement hurt from one of the wounds he'd received in the action. In an instant it might have been four thousand miles away in a high society London social club, a scene with every bit of abrupt contrast.

“Henry Saint-John Philby at your service, M'ladies.” He dipped his head slightly as he spoke in English.

“Mister Philby,” Elizabeth replied, brutally restraining the impulse of her Drakian accent in that tongue and recalling her days of being forced to speak otherwise in school in Britain. “Elizabeth Rikkesgarde. A pleasure to meet you out here.”

“The pleasure is all mine,” Philby countered. “And I do believe that I have heard that name before. From Lawrence, in fact.”

“I'm sure we could tell many stories about each other, and none of them good.”

“Perhaps so. But I must ask—just why exactly did you fire on your own force, Miss Rikkesgarde? I hardly think you would entertain my parley if that had been merely a mistake.”

“You're quite right of course. I'd like to go with you, and I've got enough camels for your force besides mine. For I've decided to leave the Domination—permanently. And I'd rather have the company than not.”

Part Five: On the Verge of the Dune Sea

The Jehadia kept their distance from Elizabeth's Druze. Heterodox Islam was not welcome among these brave but fanatical men; that was precisely why the Druze had ultimately been used as hunters against the bedouin. They were not nearly as good as the bedouin themselves, oh no, as this awesome raid had shown. But they hated them and they would fight them in continuation of centuries-old feuds if given the chance. Now the respective commanders of the two forces were forced to symbolically pitch their tents between the two factions to keep the peace.

Their position was certainly not secure. They had stopped at only a little after the first light, for at the first light the planes would be rising into the sky, the airships would return, and the hunt would begin. The Domination would not let those who attacked it so brazenly escape with a good chace of it. Elizabeth knew this and she also knew that some of her comrades—such as they were—would be hunting for them, with other clans at their backs. But those groups, against her own (by far the best, though she was biased) and against Philby's men, would be outmatched. The main threat was in their finding them in the day, with trackers and packed-in radios, which might direct in a gas strike. Their advantage was in the cumbersome size of those radios and the length of time it took to prepare them for operation, making the results of such an effort likely to come to late to make a difference.

Elizabeth and Henry St. John Philby sat, legs crossed, facing each other. Puran served them tea, feeling for the moment distinctly left out: They were both English educated and both, in their own ways, Arabists. For that matter, Philby sat stiffly in pain, wounded; he had dressed his own wounds and that was that. There was of course no alcohol here to provide a disinfectant—even Philby himself was a Muslim (at least nominally)--but in lieu of it he had rubbed a salve made from tea leaves into the wound, which would have a similar effect.

Puran watched Elizabeth mostly; she did not fear nor care much for Philby, silent and furious both as he was, an enigma. Progressively, though ,she realized that the two were somewhat alike. Perhaps it was Elizabeth's English schooling which had done it. Or perhaps it was the similarities in their taste and drive. The desert was their home, and they were perhaps even more fond of it than the bedouin themselves were. It was a bit of an envious feeling that Puran had, though her mind sternly reminded her that this love of desolation did not deny her, nor could it compare with the solace she offered when the empty places weighed to heavily upon the mind for even Elizabeth to bear.

The words, spoken in Arabic by mutual consent, fell gently upon Puran's ears and now excited her curiousity, for they spoke of something she had not heard of before. For a moment she wished to interrupt, but held her tongue. It was a delicate thing for Philby to speak of this and the faintest movement, it seemed, might break the spell of hope that had drifted down around them.

“I discovered them for Lawrence,” Philby spoke lightly, and their shared words were in the classical tongue of that ancient language. “Three craters in the desert, found in the mid-twenties. I tell you this now, but I will not tell you where they are. You will be led there with my more numerous men about your force; if I have the slightest reason to suspect you of treachery against your obligations as a guest I will slay you without hesitation—even though the bedouin among the men will complain sorely.”

“Understood. Perfectly.” Elizabeth replied. “I would expect no less from you, Saint John,” a probing parry, perhaps, to use his Christian name so when he had professed the faith of Muhammad. “We will meet your terms, and I will prove your extension of hospitality not unwarranted.” A sip of her tea, rocking back slightly as her gaze focused, intense, curious in her own way as Puran was in her's. “Three craters in the desert, you say? Tell me of them.”

“After you took the Najran oasis from us, we fell back into the deep desert, and subsisted off the wells, the roots that grow up near them, and the gazelle. But that could not last for long, in such sparse land, with so little water and so little life. We would destroy it all if we used it so greatly, as befitted our numbers. A refuge had to be found, that could sustain life. And so Lawrence sent me in search of the city of al-Wabar. The Damned city of the Quran.”

Elizabeth's mouth opened wide, for the most brief of moments, in what to Puran was her first expression of shock ever, of surprise, if also disbelieving anticipation. “Is it true, Philby? Did you find al-Wabar, destroyed by a meteorite? Swallowed up into the ground by craters?”

Philby let the moment hang, a faint and tempting look of a half grin upon his face. “No,” he said, but carried on before the word could sink in to Elizabeth: “There was no city there, but Allah had given us a city nontheless. It's strange, to, for the stories tell of the rock passing over Riyadh in eighteen sixty-three. That was the year that you secured Asir, you know, and brought your nation to the borders of the Hejaz. That rock did more than could have ever been hoped for out of al-Wabar. Three craters. The largest measures approximately one hundred and sixteen meters in diameter. The second, sixty-four meters in diameter. The third, eleven.

“These craters have given us life. They were already starting to fill noticeably with sand when we found them; but they were emptied by our labours. The ground under them had been made solid by the heat of the impact. In a space of more than half a square kilometer it became possible to dig tunnels in the middle of the most imposing dune sea in the world! Great exertion was involved, but great is the reward. As the sand was cleared tarpulins and skins were brought and affixed to screen the craters; over time we have built up the resources to cover them entirely in canvas, dyed to blend in with the desert.

“We have amassed cisterns under the desert, Elizabeth.” His voice carried in it the power of the wonder that still gripped him at the awesome accomplishments. “Channels across that whole plain carry the water swiftly underground, where it is stored before the sunlight can evaporate it, or the dunes soak it up. The craters themselves act as vast cisterns; everything that falls within them is collected and brought underground and stored. There, to, we receive condensation upon the walls; this is also collected by grooves in the floors of the tunnels and stored. Nothing is left to waste. Filters we obtain through the British in Oman make urine clean enough for animals to drink, that most of the water can go to the people who reside there. Altogether we must bring in only a trifle.

“It is a hard life. We must bathe in sand, as the Quran allows when water is not sufficient. The milk of a camel is a more precious drink to us than would be any fine wine in your homes. A man might easily be killed if he spills a drop of water. But these measures allow us to support eighteen hundred inhabitants in the middle of the deep desert, and many more, briefly, when you compel us to fall back—it is our refuge, our capital in these times. A new Petra, hewn out of the living rock!”

Henry St. John Philby's eyes reflected that intensity, the last utterance, loud and soft at the same time, accompanied by a swift motion of his arm as he gleamed with the pride of the accomplishments of his countrymen and the valiant bedouin of the desert. “Where once even the bedouin would shirk from crossing the desert, now they cross with confidence knowing they might find succor in our Wabar! That is why you will never defeat us; we have many cities on the fringes of Oman and the Yemeni Protectorates, at the verge beyond which the wells are dry and nothing lives. From these places you are confident that none would dare strike out across the 'Rub al-Khali, and you confound yourselves in being unable to find us—but we are right under your noses, buried where your aerocraft shall never find us.”

The amusement remained as Philby settled back, some. To Puran it seemed that he spoke to much; but she reminded herself that Elizabeth's troops were outnumbered ten to one by their traditional foes, who's loyalty this man commanded, and indeed it was the traditions of bedouin hospitality he followed which were all that guaranteed their safety in this camp, at once tenuous and unbreakly strong. Men sworn to die in Jihad would not touch the person of even an avowed pagan who was granted hospitality in their camp, no matter what was preached, and Puran knew from this that even if Philby himself were to give the order his men might well disobey him, no matter how much they trusted him.

Yet for all of Puran's concerns the fact remained that there was only one thing that could bring that safety to an end, and those were the actions of Beth herself. Again trust was demanded; trust such that nearly felt herself back into the old roles, here and silent between these two enigmas. Yet it was not so. The next—days? weeks?--would be filled with tension but also offered them a clear path through the net. A path into the wonders about which Puran herself could not but feel enchanted despite the efforts of her wariness. It was like something out of the fantastical tales in the books of Persian and Arab literature which Elizabeth had carelessly let her read in the days of slavery that were now so long past. It was like journeying to the Kingdom of a magic Sultan with an army of djinni and a treasure that could only be counted by Allah.

Elizabeth set aside her cup of tea, now emptied, and looked on to Philby for a silent moment. “Are the craters where some of that obsidian that's been used in the suicide bombs is from? The origin has never been identified.”

“Perhaps,” Philby allowed enigmatically.

“You talk to much for your own good,” Elizabeth said with an amused sort of look that came upon her face at last after those long moments of tense fascination that had gripped her, in the recounting of Philby's incredible story.

A faint sort of gesture of acknowledge from Philby was offered in return, but nothing more, his body stoic in pain: “Some would say that I have. But you have been anything except dishonourable, by the standards of your people at any rate. Despite that there are some that would have me kill you. Beyond that, you are respected, or even more than respected: For the bedouin fear being beaten by a woman. They explain it by saying that you are a witch who conspires with Shaitan.”

A half-snort, half-laugh coughed its way up then. “Their faith in Allah will protect them from the wiles of Shaitan, be he in me or not.”

“I had to convince them of that before they would acede to your being accepted as guests in the first place. It was entirely altogether quite close, though you may be relieved to know that..”

“Even considering me, they would not go back on such a decision once it is made. Yes, I know, Philby.” Now she leaned forward, folding her hands into her lap and bracing somewhat on them, close to the Englishman. “Indulge me something, if you will?”

“What is it that you would wish to know?”

Elizabeth's intensity matched Philby's from before: “Where is al-Hajarul Aswad?” The black stone, the sacred meteorite of Islam, the rock of Mankind's smallness and Allah's greatness, the stone which had been kissed by the prophet, and when emplaced by him, earned him the epithet of 'The Wise'. The stone which the victorious Draka had not found when they sacked Mecca. The stone which the Muslim serfs whispered Allah had taken back up to heaven, and which would descend again on a column of flame when the Holy City was recaptured by the Infidel and the faithful were made free.

Philby was silent for a moment, musing on how much to answer, how much to give out. Then he also leaned forward and spoke in little more than a whisper. Puran strained to hear, moving at last; Philby did not notice, or chose to ignore it, and when he spoke Puran could hear.

“When Mecca was besieged and the situation absolutely hopeless, Ibn Saud, who's Ikhwan had been unavailing against the Drakian modern armies during their efforts, with the bedouin tribes, to relieve the city—Ibn Saud himself acted. He let a small group of men to sneak through the siege, and escaped with the youngest son of the Sharif at his side to continue the line of Hashem as descended from Mohammad. He lost is own brother and ibn Jiluwi, his cousin--the man who killed 'Ajlan at Riyadh--in the attempt. But he came out with the Sharif's son—and with al-Hajarul Aswad.”

“So that is how Zeid escaped...” Barely more than a breathless murmur, as the tumultuous events of a quarter-century that had torn through Araby slowly resolved them, as the knowledge of two sides as at last connected. Beth twisted her head slightly. “It was taken when we seized Riyadh from Ibn Saud, certainly. I do not think he still has it.”

“You think correctly. It is with the Caliph now; Ibn Saud had little choice in the matter, for he had to save al-Hasa from the Drakian advance and only we British could do this. For our part, Whitehall desires that the Muslim populace of India remember that we are friends, and that the Draka are mortal enemies upon their doorstep. The religious authorities of the free Muslim world know where it is; sometimes men are brought blindfolded to it that they might kiss it before going on suicide missions. The only other men who know even who has it are Lawrence and the others leaders of the desert. None of us know precisely where it is, though since the Caliph is under threat of Drakian assasin I believe it might very well be in the safe-keeping of the King of Xinjiang.”

“Interesting, indeed. I should like to see the Aitigar Mosque, sometime. So much of the grand architecture of Islam was ruined. It is good that the work of the Uighur and the Moghul alike still stands. For that they will be remembered long after the rest of the old dynasties have been ground into dust by the passage of time.” Elizabeth leaned back, her hands moving to brace herself, and casting a look to Puran, a fond look. In the dim light made by the rising sun outside the tent, Puran could see it finely on her face, a reassuring thing of a pleased and relaxed individual, a mere expression which was yet strong enough to melt away the dug of lonliness and distance that had grown in those formal and exotic minutes of tales and secrets. Now it was dispersed, and for Puran, the knowledge became as a smooth tonic of power long denied.

Elizabeth looked back, her polite restraint now completely restored. Philby had shaken it with his marvelous tales, but only briefly. Now there was the journey ahead of them and what it would portend. “We had best sleep now, you especially, if we are to leave towards Wabar at dusk.”

“You are right. I shall return to my own tent, and get what sleep as the day now allows us. It will be hard riding tonight, and for every night after.”

“How long will it be, to Wabar?”

A touch of amusement crossed Philby's face as he rose to leave, a wince briefly seen on his face from the lingering pain of his wounds; then it was stamped down by his iron self-discipline and only stoic calm remained when he spoke once more. “Careful in asking to much, to soon. A month, give or take two weeks.” He paused for a moment there and directed his gaze to Puran, who tensed somewhat and made a faint movement toward Elizabeth, for this was the first time since she had served tea that Philby had really paid attention to her.

“She is my guest also, and of those who are sworn to my salt. But in the city, Elizabeth, immodesty for her may be dangerous where it is not for you.”

“Puran has not worn the Chador, nor will she ever,” Elizabeth answered simply. “I can, and will, do that much for her. If a fanatic cannot control himself, well, Rashidi steel has long been a solution for that.”

“You have that blade after all?” Now it was Philby's turn to be curious.

Elizabeth simply smiled. “You would have to see it to know for sure, and there is no reason for a sword to be drawn from its scabbard today, thankfully.”

Philby nodded in acquiescence. “Then sleep fast, since you cannot sleep for long. Soon the horses will be let go; eventually we will have to walk, and the Camels will be tested to their utmost limits. And so shall we. For we are going south and we will not stop until we have traversed the very heart of the 'Rub al-Khali across half its depth and half is breadth.”

“The challenge is part of any endeavour,” Beth countered.

Philby looked as though he might have laughed were not the pain it would have caused so great. “If challenge is what you seek, you shall find it in the 'Rub al-Khali.”

Part Six: Across the 'Rub al-Khali

The horses had long been abandoned. They had been left to their own devices; the bedouin could not stand to shoot such animals, prized by Muhammad and praised by Allah. They were in the sea, now, the dry sea. They had not seen firm ground in a week, and only the occasional track of gazelle gave hint that any sort of animal could, and did, survive in this incredible clime. A few had been shot earlier on, but none now, though the hardy shrubs that they ate still in places clung to the leeward side of the dunes. Even those were thinning and the sight of them was a welcome break from the intense monotony of the place which seemed to coexist simultaneous to its harsh and pristine beauty.

The camels continued staunchly without water for a week's travel, but today they would have to be watered, or else risk their death from pushing them to exertion. There was enough water to force-feed the camels fully once more for another week of travel—two weeks if they were willing to sacrifice some of the animals by pushing them to the extremity of their endurance. What happened after that was known only to Henry St. John Philby and his men.

They were nothing if not efficient. Though blood was forbidden for consumption by the Quran, they all knew that it was not for Elizabeth. She had consented readily, and so, forgoing her portion of the rations for the past few days, had subsisted off of a sort of blood soup made from that which had been drained from the veins of the gazelle. Puran had watched in concern as Elizabeth seemed to grow even more emanciated over the journey, but there was little that could be done. She herself, at least, had more to lose—and had most certainly seen all that fat worn away in this endless weeks in the desert.

In the day, the desert drifted away in that tan monotony. At night it loomed dark and black, the dunes impossibly high around them, the stars in the sky their only succor, a beautiful and intense and immensely full canopy of those pricks of light. The sounds of the camels, always beasts willing to complain and test their masters, provided an interruption from the absolute isolation of the place that at times became welcome. A week adapting to riding the camels had left Puran as sure of herself in controling their tempermental ways as she had been with horses. Certainly the discomfort of so long in the saddle had long ago passed away, and the change in style of riding was if anything a break for the constant sameness of the journey that had gone before.

Deprivations blended into each other. The desert had imposed impossible hardships upon them and they had survived every one of them. al-Wabar seemed like a dream of the future, a promised escape from the monotony of the present, but it didn't seem to make the deprivation any harder to endure. Puran had found herself inured to it, toughened physically to a fine edge. All the fat, as it were, had been burned away in the desert and what was left was sinew, both physical and mental. Dreams, it turned out, required a great deal of sacrifice to approach reality.

They pressed on through the night, navigating by the stars. Elizabeth and Puran rode side-by-side, an occasional glance from the elder woman carrying with it an affection framed in starlight, those quiet looks under the canopy of the night as significant as any words. St. John Philby rode on ahead of them by a half-length. Elizabeth did not mind, seeming resigned, and yet as caring as she had ever been to Puran. It was very odd, perhaps a little uncomfortable for the young woman to think about. Perhaps it was just Elizabeth's health. Her condition was absolutely terrible, eating as little as she could, drinking as little as she could, seeming to survive more on willpower than anything else.

And yet... And yet... Even through the hunger-pangs, the pitted dryness of their skin and the desperate feeling that lingered in the throat, the need for more water, the body giving itself over gradually to the desert.. There was a sense of longing inside of Puran, a childlike eagerness at what she was seeing. The dream was painful but it was still a dream to be lived. One could not live until they had seen the sun push above the dunes in the perfect stillness of the desert morning, until they had seen the infinite space laid out around them, of the great expanse of sand that was lifeless, and yet traveled by the living. It was surely true that in its own way this was the most beautiful place on earth.

The camels huffed onward, over loose sand. The only trail which would ever exist here was the one above them, the lights which led them onward. Travel by night under those circumstances, nevermind the threat from the air in the day, became a perfectly natural act. It was as if the desert reversed the normal trend of human history; you work and travel in the day, and shelter from the uncertainty and danger that comes with the dark. In the desert, those fears were steadily stripped away, and Puran found herself thinking of the desert nights as the only sort of safety that she had ever known. In the day, there was thirst and sunstroke, sand-blindness and death from above. In the night, there was that comfortable, impossibly brilliant canopy of stars above, the earthy sound of the camel beneath her body, and always, always, the reassuring silhouette of Beth to her side.

Somehow, if one was to survive the 'Rub al-Khali at all, it seemed as though they, at some intangible point, stopped merely surviving there. They began to thrive there, in a spiritual way, even as physical toils wore them down. Kilometer after kilometer passed beneath the padding feet of the camels. The ride, at first unpleasant, became so repetitive as to destroy the discomfort—it was just another fact of the desert. At last, Puran reached for her canteen, the last swallow of water in it until they camped. Her skill had been impossible a month before; she drank without losing a drop even as she rode upon the camel. It refreshed and reinvigorated beyond all proportion, as though fresh water in the desert was endowed with some kind of magical property.

As she lived her eyes skyward and drained the canteen, Puran felt that surge of pleasant coolness through her. Her eyes opened just a bit wider, and as her head lowered and she replaced the canteen, a smile touched her lips. “I will share some of my food with you when we stop today, Beth.”

“You don't need to do that,” Beth replied quietly. Her voice was much more composed than Puran's, ironically, more used to speaking with little water upon her tongue. “I am getting enough for myself, and you should not let yourself weaken, my dear.”

“Even the Spartans ate bread with their blood soup,” Puran answered. She expected no reply, and that expectation was satisfied. Puran did not press; she had done what she could.

“Philby told me something last night,” Elizabeth spoke again after a while, her voice slow enough that the man ahead might not hear her. “He said that he believes this desert was once filled with lakes and rivers, and had much life in it, and was inhabited by ancient man. His evidence... Is convincing.”

Puran nearly wanted to shout. Shock provided her with energy that the lack of food otherwise denied her. “How could.. How could what is alive, become this?”

“Perhaps it is God's way of showing us that This To, Shall Pass Away.”

Puran understood, then, when Beth said that. She remained silent for a while, trying to think of a way to politely put it to the woman. In one sense she was rather afraid of speaking wrongly, still, and this issue seemed a very deep on. “Draka don't like to think that, do they?”

“No. No we don't. You..” A faint gesture all around. “One Caliphate follows another. Sassanids follow Achaemenids on the Persian throne. One Chinese Dynasty is succeeded by another. A few hundred years of brutal foreign occupation means nothing; another age will come, it always does, no matter how much suffering is involved in the death of the old and the birth of the new. But we Draka see ourselves as invincible. This desert.. Is the fossil of a living land. If the very life of the soil can pass away, what of a people? When we have been defeated there will be nothing left... I can see our farms crumbling away to sand.”

Puran looked on with a worried, pensive expression. It seemed as though Beth were still so wedded, trapped in her past, and sometimes it did frighten her so. “If it comes to pass, you will still live, and we will still have each other.”

The faintest hint of gray washed over the black of the stars, obscuring them slightly. Dawn was coming. Ahead, Philby barked out the order in Arabic for the column to halt. They had made good time that day, and Beth repeated it to her Druze, comforted by the familiarity of a military thing. Then she reined in, herself, Puran staying close beside her, their camels complaining loudly for a moment, stamping their feet, before they settled down. The sky brightened swiftly, and they had to move with some haste in establishing their camp.

For a minute, though, Beth remained in the saddle, looking out to the brightening sky. Then she turned to Puran and offered a weary smile. “You're right. We'll have each other, and we'll have the desert. It is not a bad place, after all.”

Puran was not sure which desert Beth was speaking about. But it didn't really matter, did it? The two dismounted and began to prepare their tent and the concealments for their camels for that day. Beyond, in the eastern sky, the sun rose and its flame threw the desert into a harsh and splendid relief.

Riyadh was a bizzare, frightful place. There was really no reason for anyone to be there at all. A single brave (or insane) plantation owner controlled the arable land; he had enough food for his family and to sell to the garrison, but little else, and slaves were constantly escaping or being found in the midst of plots, even the most docile ones brought up from the police zone. A few manufactures of certain trinkets and goods existed within the city walls; none were really profitable. It seemed as though the climate of seething rebellion and backstabbing treachery which permeated the whole land was infectious. In a way, it was.

Riyadh was the great coup of all the bedouin. Any man who wanted to prove himself in these dark days would try to bring back the severed genitals of one of the soldiers stationed there. Many were of course caught and were tortured to together, sometimes impaled and sometimes flayed alive, salt being rubbed into their bodies as the flesh was stripped away while they still lived. But many times, as well, the only evidence that one of the bedouin had snuck into the city was a mutilated corpse. This desert war, far from the minds of the contented citizens in more pacified realms, had gone beyond the description of 'no quarter'. It had become a sort of sadistic nightmare in which the desert winds stripped away the humanity of every combatant. Living beings were reduced to caricatures of evil, and there was no relief in sight.

Long ago the Dominate had abandoned trying to pacify the bedouin—this was now a war of extermination, one that was fought over a vast expanse of worthless desert. It seemed mad to every outside observer. There were few bedouin; they could have settled in the British protectorates easily enough and abandoned their harsh way of life. But that way of life was their whole existence, and its destruction was threatened by the mortal foes of their religion. The Draka, on the other hand, fought wars of conquest for the sake of conquest. Their whole meaning was wrapped up in taking and holding ground, in driving their enemies before them and slaughtering and enslaving them. They could not yield Riyadh, and the bedouin could not let them hold it.

In 1863 the Emir of Inner Asir had sent the following message to the Drakian authorities in Aden Colony. In a sense it summed up the conflict which was still now going on, and had been almost ceaseless since the Draka first took Aden more than a hundred and twenty years prior. It read like this:

“I wish to rule my own country and protect my own religion. If you will, send me a letter saying whether there is to be peace or war. I intend to go from Abha to Jezan, I warn you of this, for I wish to fight with you. I like war, and God willing, I will take many rifles from you, but you will get no rifles or ammunition from me. I have no forts, no houses, no country. I have no cultivated fields, no silver, no gold for you to take. I have nothing. If the country were cultivated or contained houses or property, it would be worth your while to fight. The country is all desert and that is of no use to you. If you want sand and stone, you can get them in plenty. There are also many ant-heaps. The sun is very hot. All you can get from me is war--nothing else.

“I have met your men in battle before, and I have killed them. We are greatly pleased at this. Our men who have fallen in battle have won paradise. God fights for us. We kill, and you kill. We fight by God's order. That is the truth. We ask for God's blessing. God is with me when I write this. If you wish for war, I am happy; if you wish for peace, I am content also. But if you wish for peace, go away from my country back to your own. If you wish for war, stay where you are. Hearken to my words. If you wish to fight, I will give you back your cannon I have taken for ammunition for my rifles, for I have no need of them. If you do not want it, I will sell them to someone else. Bend me a letter saying whether you desire war or peace.”

It was a task unenviable even by the depraved standards of the Domination. A task which ultimately fell to George Resmo, Chiliarch in command of the Riyadh Garrison. He was guarded by three slaves from a long line of servants of his family at all times; in his last will and testament he had written that they were to be put to death, and promised to change it only if he should leave Riyadh on the end of his tour alive and well. Plots, treachery, and madness were everywhere here, and he knew he become quite paranoid over them, but it was not to be helped. Dueling being legal in the Dominate, it was by far a frequent occurrence here where tempers were short and danger and suffering omnipresent. Fights in the garrison were an unending plague, and it did not seem that even the constant supply of slave-girls and young boys could distract the men from the climate of conspiracy and death.

The one advantage to the whole place was that if you were looking for a man who could kept secrets and murder without hesitation, he would probably be here. Chiliarch Resmo was in need of such a man, and he had found him. The engineer of the locomotive RS-59—567 was such a fellow. His name was Theodor van Campden and his escape—bringing a locomotive intact out of the grand Arab trap of a few weeks prior—had caught a lot of positive attention for him. But there was something else on his record that the Security Directorate chief for Riyadh (an even more thankless post than Resmo's) had noted. He had served in the same battalion as the lunatic traitor, Elizabeth Rikkesgard, during the Great War.

He had a reputation ever since then for getting in fights, and generally for indiscipline. First he was assigned to a secondary posting—the Army Railroad Corps—an humiliating task for a Drakian warrior, and then to the worst spot one could be assigned to in that corps, the Riyadh Railroad. It seemed that a fair number of sturmgruppen veterans of the Anatolian fighting had ended up like that; a curious thing to be sure, and perhaps a bit disturbing. The mental legacy of the bloodiest conflict in human history affected even the Citizens of the Dominate. But now he would have a chance to rise in the world again; for George Resmo had a very special task for him.

He started down to the lower levels of the fortress-palace of Riyadh which had been taken from Ibn Saud fifteen years prior. As he did, the Security Directorate chief—Johnathan Connor—stepped out of his office to try and catch him before he headed downstairs. “Lookin' fer a little entertenment, sar?” A chuckle.

“Nae, tho we'll be gettin' some, bit it's fer business,” Resmo answered with a growl, reaching up to rub at his beard as his slave-guards hung back a bit, politely. Most Draka were clean-shaven, but here in the desert it seemed as though they took on more and more of the traits of the Arabs they fought, wearing flowing robes over their uniforms, and sewing neck-flaps onto their service caps or outright wearing kaffiyah.

“An' what's that, Sar? We've git a lotta stuff to deal with as i'tis, ah just got ah report that they've found t'camel piss in t'aviation fuel tanks agin, fer instance.”

“Demmit! Loki's fuckin' prick! We've gotta round't'bliddy clock guard on 'em!” Resmo swore violently and then started down the stairs. “Eh well. Just hafta deal withit letar. I'm meetin' with Theodor van Campden, 'cha really aught be dar, fer t'at matter.”

“Rought-o, sar,” Connor replied, following Chiliarch Resmo down. In the room below there was a slavegirl—probably Egyptian peasant stock, nicely full of hip and breast--dancing to drums and flute, bells on her ankles and wrists jangling as she rolled sensuously, wavy dark hair splayed out behind her and her breasts already bared, the pinkness of her nipples enticing even to a jaded eye like Connor's. A man sat with his legs folded before her, watching and drinking coffee, dressed in robes and a battered forage cap of indistinct origin.

“Theodor?” Resmo called out. The room was murky and dark, like all Arab buildings, with small windows and oil lamps that left a smokey, haunted sort of cast to the light in the place. But they held up well to rifle fire, were cool during the day and warm in the night, and most of all using them didn't require building material to be hauled in from somewhere else.

“Aye, t'at's me,” the man replied after a moment, looking up and offering no salute or recognition of the Chiliarch's rank.

Resmo sighed, but moved to sit beside the man, and Connor beside him in turn, sparing enough time for a lustful look to the dancing girl. “Ah've got a task fer yah, which could give yah some bliddy good credit.”

“Ahm listening.”

“Ah want yah t'kill Elizabeth Rikkesgard.”

Part Seven: al-Wabar

Theodor didn't turn his eyes from the dancing girl, and remained silent for some time. When he spoke at last his voice held a particular disdain in it. “Go find yerself ah killah. I'm justa bliddy soldit, y'know, neht some kind of ahsassin fer t'Directorate.”

“Yah was trained t'speak Arabic fer infiltration duty in t'Great War, weren'tcha?” George Resmo asked sternly.

“Ahn' Turkish,” Theodor agreed with a moment of pride that brought his eyes away from the dancing girl. Servants brought wine for the Chiliarch and the Security Directorate chief, but Theodor waved them off. “More Kaffee.”

“Then y'can play aht bein ahn Arabist, yah?”

“S'not waht yah need t'get by in Yemen. T'Brits'll wahnder where you's from.” Theodor smirked, and affected a different, sterner accent, less the mangled droll of a Drakan voice: “What you really bloody well got in me is that ah can play at bein' ah Digger.”

“S'bliddy shame t'Aussies didnae join us when dey had t'chance,” Resmo muttered. “It'd hah made things s'lot easier.”

“Bunch'e prisoners an' Irish an' fanatics,” Conner countered. “Naht worth d'trouble, just fit to be serfs. Attitudes s'like that arh twenty years outta date, an' you'd dae well t'remember it.”

“We've got enough trouble with t'sand-niggers, y'think white men are goin' t'be easier to conquer 'an 'ese fanatics? Idjit.” A pause, and a self-satisfied smirk: “We're both stuck here, Connor, an' I can speak ma'mind like any citizen—Ahn I ain't no nigger-lover like Beth, either, y'can be shure a'that. Kill all'eh damned things, I sah. Ain't people, jus' good fucks, ahn 'en only sumtimes.”

“Well, ah ain't gonna disagree that it'd beh easier just to shoot all dem sand-niggers 'an try to enslave 'em,” Connor replied at last, letting the issue of the insult drop. Riyadh didn't need its top commanders fighting duels on top of everyone else.

George looked back to Theodor, who's eyes had remained on the dancing girl during the whole regression. Then he followed his eyes there, and watched for a moment. The music had grown more erotic, a faster tempo, as the woman gyrated senuously, her breasts rolled and bounced as her body slithered and contorted to the music, displaying her delicious attributes as a mount.

The music built itself to a climax as the slavegirl continued to dance, her veils and scarves now filling off, those full, strong thighs unveiled, her dark and senuous flesh progressively revealed until, at last, in a crescendo of drums she stripped herself entirely nude and fell down into the splits facing the three, showing off absolutely everything to those watching men, silent, still, obediently waiting for another command.

“Dah yah wan'ter?” George asked after a moment of silence. “I'll give 'er t'ya tonight, an' iffin yah like her, yah can keep 'er from when yah get back. And I'll provide you all the expense coverage yah need.” A pause, and he took a breath: “Demmit, but iffin anyone knows where she'd go, it's you, Theodor.”

“The Hadhramut, an' then Injia,” Theodor said, abruptly very cold in voice, as if he was remembering long-off things. “She's wanted to visit Injia since 'er school-days in England, an' ah think that want would jus' be stronger now. Innyway, s'easier t'be a Sapphist there. No decency laws, as they'd just offind one group'r'another, so everything is t'custom. Ayup, she'll go't'Injia, an' prolly on a trading dhow. T'British ain't bad at spycraft, no-sir dey is not. Directorate idjits'll prolly send all dere men on liners and tradin' boats an' so on.

“Wellp, ah won't do that. I'll go wit some Gold Rands an'll bribe some pirates. Iffin she goes by a dhow we'll run her down, mebbe win, mebbe not. Need permission from t'guard t'let 'em land safely on't'coast ah Persia. Ah can kill'er, iffin she goes 'at way. Iffin not? Well, dey might send her by ah cruiser, ahn then ain't nobody gettin' her.” A shrug. “S'hard to kill old comrades, y'know. But mebbe iffin' I d'this I'll have enough money 'ahn fame to marry some proper dottir of a ranchin' man ahn buy a plantation in t'Mark fer a son r'two to inheirit. Ain't nuthin' else in life fer me t'look ferward to, not now, not after t'Anatolian campaign.”

A very soft voice there, as he concluded, and then added with a smirk. “Ah ain't declinin' yer offer fer t'girl, either, y'know.”

“Then take 'er, Theodor. Ah'll make all t'arrangements right now, ahn y'can leave whenever you're ready,” Chiliarch Resmo promised fervently. Theodor's evaluation was the best yet, and better still, both he and Connor knew that if the bastard actually pulled it off, they'd finally get out of the ass-end of the Dominate.

For more than three weeks they had been riding through the desert. Their water was very low now, and the camels were nearing the greatest extremity of their endurance. Most of the journey was simply dune after dune, a sea of rolling waves made up of sand. Each one seemed to increase the length of the journey greatly, making the labored and cautious ascent upon camel-back in the night, and then descending again, over and over, until it seemed more natural that one was traveling uphill or downhill than on flat ground. Philby led them, navigating by the stars alone, never once relinquishing his cool confidence as he guided the great force through The Empty Quarter.

This night seemed the same as all the rest. They were alone in the desert, a mass of dirty, exhausted, thirsty men—and two women—amongst a mass of dirty and thirsty camels, riding through the dark. Nothing seemed different, save that here in the middle of the Empty Quarter the dunes were a little less severe. There was still no water or shubbery anywhere, but from time to time Beth thought she could almost make out the remnants of the ancient watercourses and lakes which Philby had described, and at one point Puran had found a fossil in a clear spot between two vast dunes.

The Druze were becoming increasingly discontented with the distance of the journey. They were not nearly as used to the desert as the bedouin, even if their skills put most westerners in turn to shame. Frankly, they had become fearful of the whole enterprise, of their sworn enemies they were travelling with and of the magnitude of the desert. But every time they raised a murmur, Beth mustered herself and dissuaded them. Everything had held together, but the need for shelter, for a rest that had been denied them since the unceasing journey began so long ago in the Negev, was becoming overwhelming.

Puran felt it. Giving up part of her food ration to Beth she had grown weaker, far weaker over the past week, even as Beth seemed to gain a second wind from the extremity and strange beauty of this place, of this journey through the heart of the Empty Quarter. At last, the day before, Beth had simply refused any more of Puran's food and forced her to eat it; she was as much a judge of others in these conditions and herself, and Puran remained shamelessly envious of how well the elder woman held up to the strain of the deep desert.

Day was coming, and soon Philby would give the signal to bring the men to a halt. Another night spent camping in their tents, fearing perhaps a random sandstorm which would force them to spend hours and much energy digging out and great effort to protect the camels. Another night, wondering about the end of their journey. The sun was once more beginning to rise above the horizon, and with it the dangers of the day. Philby continued on, until the last of the stars had been obscured by the rising of the sun. He reined in for a moment and took a brief look toward the direction of the sky from which the sun rose, and checked his compass.

As that great flaming ball rose up into the air, a sliver of it casting down through the desert its red and orange brilliance, untarnished in the pristine air, Philby once again led them forward. Puran wondered why they hadn't stopped; she desperately needed the rest. But instead they continued onward, as the sun brightened the landscape and the day filled up the vastness of the dune sea. Puran, wearily shielding her eyes from its half-forgotten brilliance, looked to Beth—and saw her grinning.

Just a few minutes later, as it became bright enough that the riders of the Camels might see fully their path, much later into the day than they had traveled at any time before, Philby signalled the column to halt and swung around to face them, and spoke in Arabic in his clear, commanding voice: “We are three hours walk from al-Wabar! Dismount and water your camels, and then we shall make a dash for the city!”

There was a ragged cheer raised by the Druze. Puran felt an indescribable relief surging through her, and with it, disbelief. Three hours from freedom. The desert had been their escape; al-Wabar seemed to be their salvation. Simply a fortified town of less than two thousand people, it was still a free place, one that had never seen the Draka and, God Willing, never would.

“Just like him to race the last stretch. Brits.” Beth said almost fondly, as she dismounted and began to fill a canvas drinking bag for the camel with some of their last water, not stopping from taking a drink herself. “You'll want a swig of water, Dear,” she added almost as an afterthought—though it surely was not—to Puran. “Even an hour or so under the sun will take a toll on you in this state.”

“I understand,” Puran said with a voice that cracked through the words in a mixture of the dryness of her throat and the emotion that filled her, going through the task of watering the camel more slowly than Beth, thinking about all these things. “I.. I can't believe it,” she said at last.

“Then don't. Just ride—we've still got a ways to go, and we can celebrate once we're there.” Assuming we have the chance was unsaid. Beth in truth had little idea of what they were going to face, though of course the Druze provided a measure of security even in the worst case.

The order to mount up came soon enough, and Puran was ready just in time, her camel finishing off the water inside the canvas bag—which could be drawn up like a halter over the head—quickly enough, as the beasts are want to do. Then, back into the awkward camel saddle, and she took the time to carefully shift the scarf covering her head to best protect herself from the sun. After that, they were off one more time.

Quickly Philby drove his camel into a grotesque sort of trot that the animals were capable of, more of a crisp, lopping run, and somehow managed to keep himself ridgedly straight upright in the saddle the whole time. Now that they were traveling in daylight, the camels were still quite capable of this last dash, and they were quite safe in doing it; unless discovered, of course. But Philby understood that such gestures were important, and even the Ilkwan desired to return to the modest comforts of al-Wabar by this point.

Onward they rode, traveling through the dune sea at a refreshingly swift pace. al-Wabar was not seen, nowhere ahead; just endless dune after dune. This left some nervousness in Puran, a little doubt in her that denied that it could be really possible that she would in fact reach freedom. But she held it in, and rode on, enduring the rough, awkward pace of the camel, hope warring with doubt.

The desert was splendid from one's seat upon a racing camel. Bounding across the sand with ease, the marvelous beasts, however unpleasant their stride, shifted the monotony of the desert into something else. The dunes came and went, rolling under them, and each feature of the desert—made of shifting sand, and so impermanent—was revealed and concealed in turns of existance. Rushing through the desert brought a hot blast of wind against one's body, like being before a great blower next to a massive furnace. The sweat ran, but it seemed somehow less a trial than the still air, the breeze giving a sort of odd comfort despite the heat that came with it.

As with so much in the desert, it happened quite suddenly. One moment they were dashing through the terrain, as they had been for about an hour... And then at another moment they began to slow down. They began to slow down, and for Puran and Elizabeth and all the Druze alike, simply stared. Ahead of them, as they crossed the ridge of one great dune, al-Wabar was laid out before them. Three craters, each one smaller than the next, laid out almost like the pyramids. They reared out of a plain of rock in the midst of the sand, with sand piled up against their windward sides, making them like low mountains with their tops cut off.

The black rock was imposing, and yet concealing; here was an entirely natural feature of the terrain, without a single indication of any sort of human habitation at all. And yet Philby claimed there was a city inside, and looking at the glory of those craters in the midst of the dune sea, Puran did not doubt him. Her awe silenced her, leaving her to follow automatically as the last quarter-mile to al-Wabar was covered, reflexive, unable to think or do more than stare onwards in disbelief at her salvation.

They made their way down from the dune, and out onto the rough, blasted plain of melted sand and thrown up rock which formed a solid surface in the midst of all the shifting sand. The camels picked their way across this surface—blazing hot under the sun already—the men following Philby's direction toward the leeward side of the largest crater. Black rock reared up before them, and then, right beside the face of the crater, Philby dismounted and advanced, tapping at a particular spot on the side of the crater with his riding crop in a fixed signal. It was only then that Puran realized that the crater wall there had actually been hewn away, and the outline of a door of iron just large enough for a person to lead a camel through became visible.

It was opened, swinging inwards with great speed, to reveal a group of armed Arab men in their robes, grimly staring at Philby. A rapid conversation began, just outside of earshot. One of the men, an old fellow with a grizzled look and a gray beard, stepped out a bit and looked directly toward Beth. She saw the look, and held it firmly. No words were exchanged. Then the man looked back to Philby; they spoke swiftly for a moment, and he retreated inside.

Philby simply waited, as Puran and the Druze got more and more nervous at what might be transpiring. They waited in silence, the Ilkwan dismounting—though they did not—and seeming content with that wait, though a few ominously fingered their rifles, perhaps idly, perhaps in malice. It had surely been fifteen minutes before something happened. The crowd of guards at the gates began to part, and a single man in white flowing robes and kaffiyeh. As he reached the gate, he straightened and pushed aside a stray roll of fabric.

He was a white man, and he had a face that Beth recognized instantly, from the rare pictures of him in the early days before he had vanished. “T. E. Lawrence,” she called out to him, meeting his gaze firmly. No other introduction was needed. The hero of the desert lived, and Beth had found him.