“My friend, I am touched by your concern,” Hasan said, and clearly he was. “After we parted, I was seen by three men of a Bedouin tribe who provided some assistance.”
From what little Nicholas had gathered from Hasan, he knew these tribes were rather fierce-spirited, nomadic families who lived in tune with the earth beneath their feet, and who passed their days eking out a humble existence from it. They were not to be provoked. In fact, Hasan had recommended avoiding them entirely.
“Are you all right?” Nicholas asked, looking him over again. While the man’s cheerful disposition had dampened somewhat, he seemed whole enough.
“I am humbled greatly by the kindness they have shown in allowing me use of one of their horses,” Hasan said. “We must return it to them as quickly as possible.”
“Yes, of course,” Nicholas said, already turning toward the road out of the city.
“My friend, there is one more thing,” Hasan began. “They have something of yours I think you will wish to claim.”
THIS PARTICULAR TRIBE OF BEDOUIN HAD MADE A TEMPORARY camp near the halfway point between Palmyra and Kurietain, and were slowly making their way to the former, and to the oasis it provided.
Within a mile of the cluster of low tents, Nicholas and Hasan were met by several men who charged up on camelback, kicking up a dust storm in their wake. The demonstration was impressive, and more than slightly terrifying. An effective show of force to protect their own.
Hasan called out a greeting to them and offered up a bright smile that was immediately returned by the man leading the charge. Nicholas shook his head. The man was incapable of not making friends wherever he went. He had a chronic case of good-naturedness that would have made him the scorn of New England. Even these men, clearly warriors and armed to the teeth, weren’t immune.
Initially, he had found the easy bond between Hasan and Etta to be preposterous, inexplicable. But both had such a way of disarming a man, opening doors where none seemed to exist. It was a skill he’d never had himself, and it was surely one to be admired.
They were led into the encampment without further delay, the men talking amongst themselves, never once casting a curious eye his way.
Naturally. Hasan had endeared him to this tribe before Nicholas had even had the chance to meet them.
He understood immediately why Hasan had claimed to be humbled by them. Before Nicholas had even dismounted, they were presented with food and drink, introduced to wives and children. A distinguished elder, his robes marginally grander than those around him, emerged from the largest of the tents. He greeted them not with the simple warmth of the others, but with the polite deference shown to honored guests.
It was only after they had accepted some of the hospitality proffered to them, and went through the rituals of introductions and pleasantries, that the sheikh, as Hasan had called him, led them to a tent a short distance from his own.
All three stooped slightly as they entered the open-faced tent, and Nicholas made a conscious effort not to knock into the thin wooden supports that held up the exterior fabric. The inside was less Spartan than he might have expected—rugs and blankets had been spread across the ground, and a number of cushions were strewn about.
“They would like to continue on their way,” Hasan said, translating for the sheikh, “but they feared moving her.…They are offering us a place to rest for the evening, but I think it impolite to delay them further.”
Nicholas nodded in agreement. This was a matter that should never have fallen into their hands in the first place. He stepped carefully over the rugs, to the still figure lying on her back at the very center of the tent. Sophia.
The face was unrecognizable, swollen and purpled as a ripe plum. She’d been stripped bare to her waist, and three jagged stab wounds to the torso looked to be bleeding through the earthy salve and bandages covering them. A thin blanket had been draped over her supine form to protect her modesty.
“They found her in the desert, with nothing but the clothes upon her back,” Hasan explained, stepping up behind him. “They believe she was robbed, beaten, and left for dead. What do you think, baha’ar?”
“I think she’s a damn fool,” he muttered. Years of training should have made her far more careful, but ambition often walked hand in hand with impatience, especially if long denied. “Was she harmed in any other way?”
Hasan shook his head. “The women say she was left untouched save for the wounds that you see.”
“And there was no one with her? No other body?”
“None at all.”
Then the travelers still had the astrolabe, and, for some reason, had left Sophia for dead. While it wasn’t in Ironwood’s hands, the Thorns were equally dangerous, equally motivated to see their own agenda through. The astrolabe passing into their possession had been enough to alter the timeline, to orphan Etta from her era—a powerful alteration to the fabric of time.
Would retrieving it, destroying it, be enough to restore the world Etta had known? Nicholas wasn’t so sure, but it would be a start. Determination swelled inside him as he took another step toward the girl. He could do this—by land, by sea, over mountains, through valleys—he could track the Thorns, retrieve the astrolabe, and find Etta.
And he would have an unexpected resource at his side.
Sophia wheezed painfully as she drew in her next breath. One eye was so swollen, the lid looked sealed shut. Nicholas would be surprised if she managed to keep it. The other cracked open a sliver, looking up at him with her usual scorn.
The time would come—not at this moment, not even in the coming days, but soon—when Sophia would answer for what she had done. But for now, she was of far more use to Nicholas alive than in the presence of her maker.
“Look lively,” he said. “We’ve a journey to make.”