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Zarah the Cruel

Joan Conquest

118 pages
Library of Alexandria
The Holy Man, motionless, gaunt, his eyes filled with the peace of Allah, the one and only God, stood afar off, outlined against the moonlight, watching two horsemen fleeing for their lives across the desert. Pursued by a band of Arabs which hunted them for murder done in the far, fair City of Damascus and had hunted them throughout the Peninsula, they headed for the Mountains of Death towering in the limitless sands of the burning desert and cut off from the world by the silvery belt of quicksands which surround them completely. Uninhabited by beast or human being within the memory of man and the memory of his fathers, and his fathers’ fathers, yet did the wandering story-teller, as he flitted from town to village, from Bedouin camp to verdant oasis, make song or story of the legend which has clung to the pile of volcanic rock throughout the centuries. A story which either moved the listener to shouts of derisive, unbelieving laughter or held him still, lost in wonderment and dreams. A legend recounted in this day of grace by the Arabian story-teller to Bedouins, sitting entranced under the stars or the moon, yet which had been inscribed upon a highly decorated vellum by the Holy Palladius in the fifth century of our Lord, which record of early holy church was lost in the burning and sacking of a famous library in the more Christian times of the last ten turbulent years. The story of a miraculous light, which, so read the vellum, led the Holy Fathers across the sands of death, over which they did most safely pass, to find within the mountains the further miracle of fresh, sparkling water, palm groves of luscious kholas dates, stretches of durra and grass, coarse enough to be woven into shirts, with which to replace, in the passing of the years, the shirts of hair which covered the attenuated bodies of the thirty-odd early Christian Fathers. There, within the secret oasis, so went the legend, the holy men who fled the temptations and persecutions of the world and sought safety and salvation in penance and pilgrimage, built a monastery to the glory of God, and there, so it was to be supposed, they must have died, with the exception of one, who, following the casting of lots, had been sent forth from the miraculous oasis upon a mission to acquaint the Holy Palladius of the community’s whereabouts. The vellum had witnessed the Holy Father’s safe arrival at his journey’s end, but of his return to the Sanctuary, as was the poetical name given the place by the renowned Palladius, there had been no mention. A fair legend to endure throughout the passing of the centuries, a sweet story in a land of thirst and death and dire privation, a tantalizing word-picture to those who knew the shifting sands to be impassable. The Holy Man pondered upon the legend as he watched the horsemen tearing towards the quicksands and certain death, then, with the beads of Mecca slipping between his fingers, turned and continued his pilgrimage due south, the south where the wind blows hottest and the sands burn the sandal from off even holy feet. And Mohammed-Abd, accused of the murder of a wealthy, flint-hearted usurer in the fair, far City of Damascus, turned to the handsome youth who, loving him as a brother, had helped him to escape, so far, from the vengeance of the flint-hearted usurer’s relatives. “The mare faileth, Boy of the Wondrous Eyes! I fear a spear or a bullet shall find its home in her body, or in mine, before she reaches yonder mass of rocks.” Yussuf laughed and turned in his seat and looked back, shading the beautiful, almond-shaped, long-lashed eyes which had earned him his nickname and had got him into more trouble even than usually befalls a handsome youth in the Arabian Peninsula.