Timra dabbed at her eye. It was swollen and black, reflected in the water from the cistern. Omri had loosened a tooth this time, too. Behind her she heard steps and a few stifled gasps, as the other women from the village came for the morning water and saw her kneeling there, trying to soak the blood from her shift. They quietly filled their jugs and carried them away, whispering to themselves.
They had learned by now to say nothing. Omri’s fists were not for Timra alone, though he was unwilling to break the law of the long-dead Great King AmmurÄpi. His descendent Samsuditana also ruled by the law, and this close to Babylon even a small village like this, built around an ancient caravasary, had a stele with the code inscribed. So instead of beating the women who gossiped about him or comforted Timra, he would instead pummel their husbands.
She pressed the water from her shift, folded it under the water jar as a pad, and painfully made her way back to their house. Timra ignored the furtive glances, and concentrated on keeping the jar level on her head.
Their house was the largest in the village, but ill-kept. It had been her father’s house, and his father’s before him. There were still traces of the blue paint that had decorated the lintels when her father still lived. Inside it was mostly bare, the furniture sold or broken in one of Omri’s frequent drunken rages.
Timra poured water into a smaller jug, and carried it and a few left-over lentils to Nin-kara’s hut at the edge of the date orchard behind the house. Some people said that Nin-kara was older than the village itself, but however long her time on earth had been, it was coming to a close.
Timra pushed open the door to the hut. Inside it was dark and cool, the heat of the morning not felt here yet. Timra could hear Nin-kara’s harsh regular breathing from her cot in the corner. Not wanting to wake her, Timra quietly placed the bowl with the lentils and the jar of water on the old wooden bench that rested against the far wall and turned to leave.
“Wait, child,” rasped Nin-kara. “Bring me a drink before you go.”
Timra poured a little water into a wooden ladle, and brought it to edge of the bed. She guided Nin-kara’s hand to its handle. Nin-kara drank, then coughed.
“He has beaten you again, hasn’t he,” Nin-Kara said, her voice a little clearer.
“But, I — ” stammered Timra.
“I do not need eyes to see what my ears and nose can tell me. There is a smell of blood on you, and your step is uncertain.”
“Yes, Nin-kara. Last night he found me not to be obedient, and he chastised me.”
“And then took what little was left in the household, no doubt, and left for the city and its places of gambling and its brothels. I heard him last night, cursing and complaining as he stumbled down the road on his way to the city.”
“He is my husband, and I am a poor wife.”
“He is a brute, and has gambled and whored away all that your father left you.”
“He is my husband,” Timra sobbed.
“Yes. Well. I am old, and no longer have the respect for men I may have once had. But we have spoken of this before, and I fear you are weary of my words. We will talk of other things. What of the village?”
Timra leaned forward, glad of the excuse to change the subject. “I met a strange woman last night. She rode a horse, and carried a sword. I have never before seen a woman travelling alone, but she seemed unafraid and confident. Her face and arms were scarred, as if from many battles. She spoke to me as she rode past the house, asking the way to the caravansary. She said her words strangely, like the traders from far away sometimes do.”
Nin-kara coughed and gasped. “No!” she said.
“Yes, and Damara the carvansary keeper’s wife told me she sat at the table like a man, drank strong wine, and asked if there were any brave men about for hire.”
Nin-kara shook her head, a vague motion in the near darkness of the hut. “I have truly lived past the number of my days, to have such a one come to my village twice in my lifetime.”
“What do you mean, Nin-kara? I have lived here all my life, and never seen her before.”
“I was no more than ten summers old. She came, the Mistress of Tears, and lured away four men from our village, and a caravan guard.”
Timra sighed. “Dear Nin-kara, you are mistaken. This woman looks to be no older than I am.”
“She was old long before I was born. She serves a foul beast, who eats the flesh of men. Have you not heard the caravan song?
What will be destroyed / belongs to the Servant
Who comes for the mother’s fruit / and takes it away.
She is a destroyer, / a slayer of men.”
Timra stared, a thought forming in her head. “I must go, Nin-kara, before my husband returns. I must make the house ready for him.”
“You see!” Omri bellowed. “All it takes is a little of the back of my hand, and you step right into line. Perhaps I will not have to sell you to the brothel after all.”
Timra looked up from where she knelt before her husband. “Even more, oh husband. I have found how you might earn great treasure, and so restore our fortunes. There is a woman at the caravansary, who is hiring men of strength and courage. She promises high pay, great danger, long journey, bad company.”
Omri smirked. “A woman, eh? What a woman has, a man of strength can take. I will see her. You have done well, wife.”
“Yes,” Timra said, and smiled.
Michael Ehart has been writing for over 30 years. This story is set in the milieu of his popular ‘Servant of the Manthycore’ stories. The collected ‘Servant’ stories will be soon available in book form from DEP, with interior illustrations by Rachel Marks. He is married to one of the most beautiful women in the world and would offer ‘pistols for two, coffee for one’ to anyone who disagrees but pesky laws get in the way and so offers instead to naysayers a referral to a good optometrist.