It was home, but not. Soldiers with pale faces and the livery of Umbar patrolled the streets of Behd’ad. Doors were closed and no families sat under the stars on their rooftops or sang in the suk. Even the bright colors of the mosaics and pennants dimmed somehow, and he saw at last that the lanterns remained unlit, even in the temple precincts of the upper bank. The city held its breath, and he could feel the fear.
There were back ways and roof bridges that the Umbarim did not know. He was dressed dark with his turban draped to cover his lighter skin. Like the lions of the hills he went silent, seeking the shadows, and finally slipping down the ladder into the house where his remaining wife lived.
“Tirzah?” He whispered, even here behind the thick mud brick walls. A lampstand sent wavering shadows over her loom and wheel, her distaff and her boards. Her glossy hair was uncovered, a thick rope in which gold beads glimmered like the jewels at her ears and nose. She would be considered plain, perhaps, certainly not the even-featured night-dark beauty her sister-wife had been. But he hadn’t noticed for some years now. Her face made his heart ache with longing so sharp that he missed the look of dread that failed to lift with her greeting.
“Hotepi! My lord. Were you seen?”
He came to sit, offering his feet as she went to get the basin for the washing. It had been a long time. Her hands, henna faded into bare shadows, made his heart race and his body tighten. His chaste Tirzah with the hands that made beauty from wool. It took him some time to realize that her cheeks were wet as she washed the dust from his battered feet.
“Hmm? No, heart’s sister. But I saw the snakes slithering through the reeds. What has happened?”
Her eyes were stricken as she looked at him, almost as if she were afraid of speaking. He reached for her trembling chin and murmured, “Shhh. Shhh now. I’m home. I’ll stay as long as you need me, no matter what far-fetched plan Omi’s Amirah has thought of this time.”
She only wept more bitterly, choking on her words as he pushed the bowl aside and pulled her to rest between his knees, against his heart. “But you cannot stay. Not now! My lord, they will take you and send you North. They’ve taken everyone’s men. Boys, the old, everyone, no matter the proclamation said fifteen to forty.”
His hands stilled on her back and his voice trembled as he asked, “My father?”
Her tears grew more bitter and he strained, his heart a rock clutched in his chest. “He dwells in the other world now, My Lord. He would not… he said he could not strike against the white deamons.” She cringed as his grimace flared and said quickly, “Forgive me, Hotepi. I forget. But he wouldn’t, and many others said the same. ‘No more’ they said. ‘If we stand together, Umbar will remember its treaties and our sons will live.’ But…”
She fell again to sobbing and he asked, shakily, “Why? Why now?”
“The House of Aziz is in open revolt. The Amirah called; Khassan himself came with her commands, speaking of the Amirah ruling from a land called Bah’ri. Abdul has fallen, and it is said that Farq’ad was to marry the Little Amirah to his brother. She is only a baby! A baby, my Lord. They fled in the night after giving their holdings to the older Emirs. It is said by some they perished in the desert. Others say they hide among the wh… the men of the North. . And then…”
He finished for her, numbly, “Farq’ad called on Umbar, thinking they would reward him with bounties. And Umbar used the excuse to make an example.”
She nodded. “All who resisted were herded into the Precinct of Horus – the Caliph’s own court, sacred ground! And shot until all were dead. They were left there to desecrate the ground, an insult to the very gods.”
“Omi! I must…”
“Oh, Hotep. She too lies with your father. She went with him, knowing it was her death.”
His ears buzzed and his mind shied like a camel before a storm. “I must perform the rites. I must preserve the ka’s home.”
Her hands tightened on his. “There is nothing to preserve. Umbar let them… there is nothing. They made us come to see as the vultures came.”
His forehead rested against hers and he breathed her scent. Wool and dye, the light char of cooking fires. The light myrrh of her perfume. Tirzah. His hearth, his home. “Houseless… houseless.” Anger choked his throat as he growled, “I will have their heads. I will burn Umbar to the ground. I will call down every curse…”
She said softly, “You will die.” Her face crumpled with pain as she said, “You must go. Go where Aziz went, away. Live. Survive. Make them pay.”
He shuddered and let his eyes open to look into her stricken, velvet brown gaze. “You aren’t coming.” His tones were pained, soft.
Her tears made her voice waver. “No, my lord, my heart. I am not brave like you. Like Miriam. Please… please, don’t ask me this. Don’t make me …”
She was right, and he saw how the honesty cost her. Miriam had paid the price of his wandering last year, bleeding her life away when her labor took her on the trackless paths of the mountain passes. His Miriam. Fierce Miriam who feared nothing, who rode as a man and lusted after adventure. His bride from the green wetlands far, far South whose skin was blue-black and whose hair was the soft wool of cashmere kids. No. He could not ask this of Tirzah, who was steady as the flood and immovable as a mountain. Her sisters were here, and her old parents would starve without the profit from her beautiful weaving. Their family was old, under the protection of the Emir of Ashan and not tainted, as he was, as vassals to Aziz. He knew what he must do. She knew what he would do.
“Tirzah…. Tirzah…” Her name fell as a prayer from his lips and she leaned up to catch it with her mouth. Desperately, fiercely they made love as the lamps guttered, clinging again and again until grey dawn chilled the sweat of their skin as they lay huddled, lingering through the day. He memorized her curves, her sighs. A scar touched her hip where she had fallen as a child. There was a mole just behind her right knee that he kissed again and again. Before, it would make her giggle. Now she wept, as did he.
When exhaustion took them, they drowsed a while, and then with the evening she put all the food she could fit into his battered pack, still fitted for travel. He didn’t look at her as he found a bit of papyrus with a blank back and wrote careful words. He said, each word drug bleeding from his heart, “They will have taken my inheritance, but I have put everything that is mine into your dowry. Ever since Aziz began to walk its road. I wish I left you with sons…”
Her voice was sharp, bitter as she said, “Wish me no sons, Hotep. No sons to be torn from my arms to die in the wars of Umbar. No daughters to be left without men to wed, to cry in the night and be taken as whores by those foreign jackals.”
His head hung, and her hand soothed his neck. “I’m sorry, Hotepi. I’m sorry.”
“You deserved a better husband. A man who was here. A man who was properly born to the Siresha.”
“I have missed you, but never regretted you.”
He sat back, staring at the words on the paper he had written. Formal words, and words he had not wanted to write.
“If… if you can’t. I understand. Perhaps someday things will be different.”
A bitter laugh came from his throat that he hardly recognized as his own. “No, Tirzah. No. You deserve to be free and happy. You deserve to be loved. I can’t give you what you merit, but I can give you this chance. My blessing.”
Their eyes met and the moment stretched and stretched. “You must say it,” he whispered.
“I don’t know if I can.”
“Say the words, my heart. For me.”
Her eyes closed and he could barely hear her as she said, in the Old Tongue, “I divorce you. I divorce you. I…. I divorce you.”
It hurt, like a knife to his heart. But it wasn’t the despairing pain he had felt as his Miriam died in his arms, and their little son gasped to his death with his tiny, unformed chest. No. This pain had sweetness to it, bleeding victory. Softly he said, “May the gods bless you richly and light your paths all your days. May fate see your heart and give it its due. May the joy you have given me be accounted to you, and may your next husband deserve your love.”
What more was there to say? In the darkness, Hotep left his home and his name behind, again setting out for the unknown. But now, there was no slender thread to follow back to his hearth, no loving family’s embrace. Across the bank, he paused to take two stones, writing the names of his parents on each, clearly so they would recognize them and have a home. This last duty done, he set out along the trackless paths to the last person who could give him his vengeance, to find this land called Bah’ri.
He had no home. He was Shemeh, the wanderer, once more.