Gift of the River (preview)

A glimpse of something I’ve been working on for the past several months. Called Gift of the River, it’s a historical romance set in Ancient Egypt. This is the prologue as it currently stands, although it’s sure to go through lots of revision before I’m through with it.

……

Hooves pounded the ground as the horses tore across the open plains. Iset clutched her captor, deciding she was more terrified to being dashed to pieces on the ground than of wherever he was taking her. She twisted to look behind them, straining through the clouds of dust that followed them to search for the answering cloud that her father’s pursuing forces would raise.

But no such cloud of dust was in sight.

Her stomach clenched in a way that had nothing to do with the horse’s breakneck speed. As if sensing her thoughts, the horseman chuckled. “Saying your last goodbyes to home, Lady?” he said, not turning to look at her.

“What do you want with me?” Iset demanded, mostly out of form. She did not truly expect her question to be answered this time when it had gone unanswered so many times already. Besides, she recognized Lord Kemnebi’s crest on the armor of the men who had grabbed her. She spat. Their neighbor to the north had always coveted their larger, more prosperous lands. But she had not truly believed he would stoop to kidnapping to achieve his ends.

It would not profit him, she resolved grimly. She would not wed him, no matter what threats he put to her.

But her own heart turned treacherous as she thought of just what threats he might make. Lord Kemnebi was not a kind man. More than once, her father’s servants had discovered escaped slaves fleeing him, begging piteously not to be returned. Her skin crawled as she thought of the punishments they had claimed to face.

It would not come to that. Her father would come for her. Again, she raised her eyes to the horizon. Her heart sank. The plains that stretched out behind them were completely empty.

No one was coming for her.

Tears stung Iset’s eyes. Every second, the galloping horses took her farther and farther from home. Iset had traveled this way before, on the infrequent occasions she accompanied her father to Sais, the capital of Northern Shield, to attend the great festival of Neith held there. It had been only half a day’s journey, even at the slow pace demanded by such a large party, with cattle and goats for sacrifices and slaves on foot. Iset was sure that this party, five men mounted on swift horses, would make the journey much faster.

How long had it been already? Iset hardly knew. At times it felt like only minutes since she had been snatched away from her home, yet at others it felt that she had been an eternity on this horse. Iset closed her eyes. For a second, she was back with her maid, Kiya, in the garden, not a care in the world, not a cloud in the sky. She could almost smell the perfume of blue lotus on the wind. Everything was beautiful and serene. And then, in the very next instant, her world had been torn apart.

Iset’s eyes flew open at the violence of the memory. She knew not how the soldiers had concealed themselves in her garden or how they had come there. She could not even say just how it had happened. It was all so flash, just a blur. Just a flash of light on a spear, and then a rush of men upon her, grabbing her, pressing their sweaty, meaty hands over her mouth, hauling her roughly away as she choked on sobs and screams that could never be sounded. She didn’t even know what had happened to her maid. As far as she could tell, Kiya was not with the band that raced towards Northen Shield’s borders. Iset could only hope and pray the woman had gotten safely away. There was no reason that she should share Iset’s fate.

All too soon, the horses were slowing as they approached the branch of the river Nile that separated her home of Southern Shield from Northern Shield. Once they crossed the river, they would no longer be under the justice of Pawura, the Southern Shield nomarch, but of Uro, of the Northern Shield. Iset swallowed hard. Even if her father demanded justice, it would not take much of bribe to convince Uro that Iset had freely chosen to come and marry Kemnebi, not with the promise of her father’s lands soon coming into his domain.

She could not allow this to happen. She must do something. Again, she looked behind her, this time trying to screw up her courage to throw herself from the horse. Their pace had slowed, surely…

She couldn’t make herself do it. Even if she survived the fall, she could easily be trampled by the other riders. Iset’s eyes squeezed shut against the image that flooded her mind. Besides, it would be useless, she reasoned with herself. Even if through some miracle of the gods she escaped unharmed, it would not take long for Lord Kemnebi’s men to overtake her and recapture her, not with them mounted and she on foot. She would have to wait and watch for another way.

The sound of shouting voices drew Iset out of her thoughts. Burly men, stripped to only their loincloths, swarmed towards the horses, their voices loud and angry. They must have run into one of the little fishing villages that cropped up all along the Nile.

One of the men stepped towards the rider who held Iset, causing the horse to rear. Iset shrieked and clutched at the rider to keep from falling. The man kept his seat, but let loose with a stream of curses indiscriminately aimed at Iset, the villager, and the horse.

For his part, the villager seemed undisturbed. “What business have you in our lands?” he demanded in a gruff voice.

“The businesses of our master,” snapped the man who held Iset. “And no concern of yours!”

Iset watched the men’s eyes pass from the soldier to the crest on his armband, to Iset’s face. Iset tried to put all the pleading in her soul into her eyes. They had to know this wasn’t right. They had to do something.

“Your devices are strange,” one of the villagers said skeptically.

“Aye,” agreed another. “Who is this master you speak of? Not one of our local lords, I’ll wager.”

“And the wench?” questioned another, an older man, raising one hoary eyebrow. “Is she part of your brigands.”

“Stand aside, you peasants!” snarled one of Lord Kemnebi’s men. He hefted his spear menacingly. “Let us pass!”

“Brigands,” Iset heard the fishermen muttering in dark voices. Her heartbeat fast. Surely they would help her. Surely…

“Let us pass!” shouted the rider in front of her. He drew his khopresh. The sun glinted off the curved blade of the sword.

Iset gathered her courage. “Help me!” she shouted. “These men are kidnappers! They—” The rest of her cry was muffled as a large hand was clapped over her mouth.

But her shout had been enough to ignite a struggle. As she squirmed to get free of her captor’s grip, she glimpsed men shouting, grabbing at horses, brandishing fishing spears. All of Kemnebi’s men drew their swords, and the fighting began in earnest.

The horseman who held Iset swung his blade at a fisherman with a spear and loosened his grip on Iset. She slipped from the horse and tumbled to the ground. She rolled just in time to avoid being trampled by the hooves of rearing horses. Everywhere around her, men battled. Kemnebi’s men were better armed and mounted, but there were few of them, a company selected for speed and stealth, not force. There must have been twice as many of the fishermen and nearly all had spears.

Iset ran blindly, trying to escape the violent scene. She made it only a few steps before a man—whether a soldier or a peasant she did not know—grabbed her. She twisted violently, but could not break free. In another instant, a blade rammed through his belly and his grip slackened. She sprinted for the cover of the river; the tall reeds would hide her until the battle was through. She stumbled into the shallows. Black mud spattered the hem of her white gown and sharp reeds poked into her flesh.

The neighing of a horse made her look up. A riderless horse careened towards her, its eyes wild and its ears flat against its head. Iset dove out of the way, but not fast enough. The horse barreled into her, knocking her to the ground.

Her head rang with pain. She struggled to rise. The pain stabbed through her as fierce as barbarian’s blade. She slumped back down, no longer caring about the mud that soaked her clothes or the battle that raged just yards from where she lay. Blackness swam before her vision and then consumed everything.

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~ by Morgan Star on August 27, 2012.

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