Mother, I need you
Take me back and cradle me
In boughs and branches
Clothe me in green leaves
Suckle me on fresh flower petals
Soothe me with wind songs
I am lost, alone,
For you will not come near me
Where I wander now.
The music wove a wild, insistent fury in her brain; its tempestuous rhythms drove her, inspired her movements. The strings of the saz and the oud rang out in frenzied quarter-tone harmonies. The dumbeki drum shivered and pulsed and quivered. The zils on her fingers made brass thunder in the air.
All through the inn men and women hawked and cried encouragement, ignoring food and drink and companions while they watched her dance. Samidar's dance.
Her hips shimmied, stilled suddenly, then described small, tantalizing circles and half circles. Above the low band of her several skirts her belly fluttered, rolled sensuously. The navel seemed to drift around her body of its own free motion. She began to spin ever more rapidly on the smooth tabletop. Skirts flew about, exposing her legs and the bells she wore on her left ankle. Dark hair formed a cloud about her face. The jeweled halter that contained her breasts glittered in the lamplight that illuminated the inn; the gems flashed with mesmeric fire in response to every subtle movement.
She clanged the zils, and the deep voice of the dumbeki throbbed in answer. The saz and the oud dared, and her hips courted brazenly. Perspiration made thick rivulets along her face, throat, and torso, creating slick puddles that menaced her intricate footwork.
She danced, danced until the faces were blurred and the voices were indistinct rumbles of no significance, until nothing touched her or seemed real but the drum and the music and the dance.
From the shadowy darkness coins struck her breasts and belly, then clattered on the table around her feet. It was impossible to recognize the value or the mint. She glanced at the man who threw them, then regarded him through seductively lowered lids, a gaze that promised everything and nothing, by design. Generosity deserved some reward after all. She shook her hips for him, turned, bent slowly backward until her hair brushed the top of the table. Her shoulders and breasts began a provocative quiver as she arched even lower.
It was part of the dance, that look, that beguiling, teasing gaze. It drew the customers in, made them part of the dance, too. It invited them to share in her joy and excitement.
The dumbeki called her back with an urgent, low fluttering, and she gave herself to its rhythm like a lover, riding every throbbing beat, feeling the drum's power coursing through her.
Then the drum stopped, and it was like the huge hand of some cruel god had suddenly crushed her heart. She collapsed, both legs bent back beneath her, breasts heaving, one hand flung back dramatically, eyes closed, skirts pooled between her damp, open thighs.
For a long instant the inn was silent. Then, the crowd erupted. She shielded her eyes from the shower of coins that shimmered in the air and fell on or around her. Kirigi, the drummer, rose from his seat before the dumbeki to help her gather them. He grinned at her as she sat up. Some of the coins had stuck to her sweat-sheened flesh. She picked them off and dropped them in Kirigi's cupped hands. Plenty of coins, she discovered. A good night.
Hands reached up to help her down from the table.
They were a good lot, these men and women. Their mirth threatened to burst the walls of her poor place. They called zaghareets and shouted to her, and she answered with bawdy joviality.
"I hope you've a father or an older brother, Conn," she gibed. "I doubt you're man enough, yourself!" That brought laughter from all but the boasting, red-faced young townsman.
"Make 'er no offers, lad," cried old Tamen. Once, he'd been a warrior in the northern lands. Now, he was Dashrani's blacksmith. "She'll no' accept 'em from the likes o' ye."
Samidar reached out and tweaked the old man's iron-gray beard, wondering briefly if anyone noticed such streaks in her own black tresses. "With a man like you around" -- she grinned, teasing -- "hot young studs like Conn haven't a chance."
"Ah, his sword's too rusty to cut piss," shouted a stranger, one of the caravan merchants who frequented Dashrani's bars and brothels. "Let alone carve on good hams like yours!"
That brought another outburst from the crowd.
Old Tamen jumped to his feet, parted his trousers, and exposed himself. "Who said that? Speak, ye son o' a bitch, an' up against the wall wi' ye! We'll talk o' swords!"
A flurry of taunts, insults, challenges, and bets filled the inn as a dozen others exposed themselves. Samidar cried out over the din, "Put those things away before the straw thrashers come for an early harvest! You'll find no one here to test the mettle of those dirks."
The laughter was interrupted this time as someone called from the far corner, "How about those three monkeys by the door? I'll wager they've sat on a few dirks in their days."
She turned to see whom the caller meant. The customers seemed to part for her.
Three soldiers, dressed in the livery of the king, hunched around a small table separate from the rest. Two of them clutched half-empty mugs of ale. The third leaned back on his bench, resting against the wall, drinking nothing. She'd noticed them earlier. They'd sat quietly most of the evening, watching and muttering among themselves
She stopped before their table and folded her arms. "Well, what say you men of King Riothamus? Will you cross swords with my fine gibbons?" She waved at the men who, moments ago, had exposed themselves.
The soldier who leaned on the wall folded his arms over his chest, perhaps to mock her, and regarded her with a cool, sober gaze. "We never cross swords with peaceful citizens."
Did she imagine it, or was there a hint of displeasure in his tone, a note of warning? It annoyed her. This was her place; she ruled it.
A little pout formed on her lips, and she drew her hair over one shoulder so it covered a breast. Her hand drifted down along one hip in an exaggeratedly seductive motion. "But you do sheathe your blades now and then" -- she made a small thrust with her pelvis and grinned -- "in a few of those peaceful citizens?"
Someone shouted from the crowd, "I sheathe it in me wife ever' night, an' she's real peaceful!" That sparked another uproarious outburst.
But an odd tension settled over the inn.
Only two days before, a farmer and his family had been slaughtered on the far side of Dashrani. The youngest son had lived just long enough to accuse a band of soldiers. A hasty search by a group of outraged townsmen found no soldiers in the area. However, it was general conversation among the caravan merchants that King Riothamus was taking little time to verify allegiances in his hunt for an elusive group of bandit-rebels.
Now, here were three soldiers. Could they have had anything to do with the farm attack?
The soldier unfolded his arms, leaned forward on one elbow. He fixed her with a stare. "We sheathe our blades where our king orders." He glanced at his two companions. They continued to sip their ale, but they watched the crowd carefully. "Where your king orders," he added pointedly.
"To the insensate joy of wives and daughters everywhere, I'm sure." Samidar spread her skirts and made a mocking curtsey, hiding a smile. "Kirigi, my fine son!" she called, straightening. "More brew for these duteous soldiers." She leaned on the table, then, until she could smell the beer on their breath. "Enjoy my hospitality, sirs, but pray keep all your weapons sheathed. I run neither a brothel nor a charnel house."
She turned and glowered at old Tamen, who stood close behind her. "And if you let that mouse out of its hole again, I'll take a broom to it."
Again the inn shook with laughter, and Tamen was made the butt of many jests. He took them all in good humor, though, secure in the knowledge that, if any cared to look, it was no mere mouse that filled his trousers.
She pushed her way through the throng and passed through a door into the kitchen. The smells of roasted meats were nearly overwhelming in the small room, despite the two unshuttered windows. She snatched up a long tunic from a peg on the wall and pulled it over her head. The hem fell past her knees; to protect her skirts it was much better than an apron.
Half a side of beef and several fowl sizzled on spits in the huge firepit. She dipped a ladle into a jar of grease and herb-seasoned drippings that sat on the hearth. She poured it carefully over the meats, and blue spurts of flame leaped up as the juices drooled down on the crackling coals.
Kirigi came in, bearing a wooden tray and four mugs. His linen shirt was opened to the waist, revealing his smooth, sweaty chest. He paused long enough to wipe his brow and smile at her.
"You danced like a wind-devil tonight, Mother," he said as he dipped each mug into a large cask of frothy beer.
"You drummed like the thunder-goddess herself," she called after his departing back.
Alone again, she bent over a blackened pot of stew that simmered on the edge of the coals and stirred the contents with a heavy spoon. As an afterthought, she added water to thin it. When that was done, she moved to the other side of the kitchen, where loaves of hard-crusted bread and blocks of cheeses occupied a row of shelves. Only two cheeses were left. Tomorrow she would have to go into Dashrani to the shop of Khasta the merchant. His cheeses were the finest; she dealt only with him.
Filling a mug with beer for herself, she rejoined her customers.
They were hers, these men and women of Dashrani, neighbors who walked or rode out from town to relax from the day's labors or to escape their wives for a little while. Some came to forget their troubles; some came to enjoy the company of good fellows. There were other inns inside the city's walls, but they had no dancers, or they watered the wine, or the owners were surly. Not that her place was a playpen for children; she served the occasional cutpurse and murderer, she was sure. But she minded her own business. And at her place, she reflected with a sly grin, if one was robbed or murdered, it happened in good humor.
Yes, they were hers. For twenty years she had lived among them, served them, and entertained them. She knew their troubles, and they knew hers. And though she was not native to Dashrani or even to the kingdom of Keled-Zaram, they accepted her. They were as close to her as kin, these men and women, these friends.
A movement near the front door caught her eye. Riothamus's soldiers slid out quietly into the night. She crooked a finger at Kirigi, who served a table on the other side of the inn. With a subtle nod, he set down his tray and followed them out. Moments later, he returned and took up his duties again.
"Away from town." he reported, mouthing the words so she could read his soundless lips.
Samidar put the soldiers out of her mind. There was business to see after, and it was almost time to bring out the meats. She feared the stew had scotched, but if she sold enough beer, her customers wouldn't notice. And later, she must dance again. She was eager for it, though she rubbed the small of her back, sighed, and wished she were younger.
It was nearly dawn when the last guest departed down the road toward town. Samidar stood in the doorway and watched the stranger stumble drunkenly toward the city gates. The spires and rooftops of Dashrani stood black and stark in the pale, early twilight. Soon the first rays of morning would lighten the stained windows and gold-tinged tiles. Though not a large city, yet, Dashrani was an important stop on the caravan routes, and the wealth of its citizens grew each year.
She leaned against the doorjamb as she did so many mornings and watched the last vestige of night fade away. A morose purple colored the sky. The evening's last hunting owl circled overhead, seeking prey, riding the light wind that stirred the branches of the few trees. As she stood there, the first rays of sunrise ignited the distant gentle swell of the land.
The doorjamb was worn smooth where Samidar leaned on it. Before the inn a road ran west into the hills and east toward the small town of Dashrani. Nothing moved along it as far as she could see, nothing but little dust-devils that rose and swirled in the wind.
The floorboards creaked under Kirigi's tread as he came up behind her. She didn't turn or answer, just leaned on the jamb, stared down the road.
The weight of his hand rested briefly on her shoulder. He said softly, "You look so pensive."
"It's probably nothing," she told him, patting his hand. "Just a mood."
"Is it still Father?"
Samidar gazed off into the far hills, where only a few short months ago she and Kirigi had buried Kimon, her husband of twenty and more years. The rising sun lent the hilltops an amber halo. The peaks blazed with light, as they did every morning. So she had chosen them for his final resting place.
"No," she answered slowly. "Not Kimon. I grieve, but I no longer sorrow. The pain is almost gone, Kirigi, you needn't worry." It was a lie. She missed Kimon more than she could bear sometimes, especially in the quiet moments like this when the crowd had gone home to their own wives and husbands, when there was nobody to dance or cook for. She ran her hands along her arms, remembering, wishing for his touch.
But there was more, some sense of tension that wafted on the air. An eerie foreboding gnawed at her. Through the night she had occupied herself with her customers, pushing such worries from her mind, losing herself in furious dancing. But with the dawn and solitude she felt once again the strange apprehension.
"More clouds," Kirigi observed, stepping past her, pointing to the northern sky. "So many clouds of late, and this is the dry season."
He had stripped and washed clean. His skin glowed. His hair, nearly black as her own, shone with a luster. He will break the ladies' hearts, she thought to herself as she watched him stretch. Again, she wondered at his precise age. Ten winters with her now, and he couldn't have been more than six when Kimon found him and brought him home. Kirigi had grown tall and fair and hard in those years.
She glanced at her own body, still lean after so much time, kept that way by her dancing. In the light of morning, though, she could see what so many did not in the chiaroscuro of the inn's dim illumination: the network of scars that laced her forearms, the larger scar on her shoulder that was usually hidden under the strap of her halter, more scars on her ribs and thighs. Yes, she was lean enough, but her body was not pretty, not in the pure light of day.
"It's just not natural," Kirigi continued, studying the sky.
"It doesn't smell of rain, though," she answered. "It'll be bright and hot."
"You danced well last night," he said, turning, changing the subject, grinning. "Old Tamen's eyes were about to crawl out of their sockets. I'll be mopping up his drool all afternoon."
"And his wife will be scrubbing his trousers," she added with a wink, and they both chuckled. She turned her gaze to the west, toward the distant hills that were so green and misty in the dawn. "I feel good, Kirigi," she told him at last. Despite the odd sense of expectation that filled her, it was true. "I haven't felt this way for a long time -- since we buried Kimon. But it's like I've come out of a deep cave and found the sun."
He followed her gaze into the hills, and his voice was softer when he spoke. "I'm glad." He swallowed, glanced sidewise at her. "I was feeling guilty because the pain had gone away from me, yet you grieved." He took her hand in his. "Let's walk a little way and celebrate a new day together."
They started down the road away from the city, giving no thought to Kirigi's youthful nakedness. Either of them sometimes walked that way in the early morning when no one else was awake to see, when the gentle wind and the new warmth felt good on the skin.
As they walked, dust rapidly collected on the hems of her skirts. Well, they were sweat-stained from her performances and needed washing anyway. "How much longer will they watch?" she wondered aloud without intending to speak.
"What?" Kirigi asked. "Your dancing?" He smirked as she traced one of the more livid scars on her forearm with a hesitant finger. "You worry too much about those," he told her. "They never bothered Kimon. Did you know your bed squeaks?"
She punched him playfully in the ribs. "And I'll bet you pressed your ear to the wall to listen," she accused.
"Every night," he confessed. "They don't bother anyone else, either. Oh, they've caused a few rumors. I've heard folks wonder how you got them. Some think you were a slave, and some think you were tortured once. A lot of people think Kimon must have rescued you from some terrible life."
The mist lifted from the hills as the sun climbed over Dashrani's rooftops. "They'll never know how close to truth that is," she admitted. Memories came rushing at her, violent memories of another time and another life, memories and faces and images that haunted and tormented her. She caught her adopted son's hand and squeezed it, and somehow in that physical contact she found strength to shut them out.
She stopped walking and faced him. The barest hint of fuzz shadowed his cheeks, and his eyes were alive with a youthful innocence. His body, though, was that of a man, already swelling with thick muscle.
"I'm so proud of you, son," she told him suddenly, clutching his arm. Then she tilted her head and forced a little smile. "Do you know what day this is?"
He nodded. "The Spider."
"The day of the Spider, the month and year of the Spider," she affirmed. "When this night is passed, I shall have seen forty-three birthdays. Such a special triune occurs only once every twelve years. Let's hope it heralds good things for us."
Kirigi licked his lower lip. "But you told me the spider was sacred to Gath, the chaos-bringer."
Samidar began to walk again. "I've told you too many old tales from my past. Couldn't you have had the good sense not to listen? This is Keled-Zaram, and the gods of this country are not the gods of the West. Here, the spider is a symbol for artistry, not chaos. And am I not an artist?" She danced a few steps for him and laughed.
"Forty-three," she said once more with a note of awe. "I'll be too old for this, soon." She danced a few more steps and shook her hair. "See," she said, pointing among the strands. "You can see the streaks of gray."
But Kirigi was not listening. He stared off into the hills again. No, she realized. Not into the hills, but beyond them. She studied the strong, high-boned features that seemed almost a sculpted setting for the precious sapphires that were his eyes. She bit her lip "When will you go?" she asked suddenly.
Kirigi started, and his gaze jerked back to her face. "Huh?" Then he blushed. "I'll never leave you, Mother." His arm went around her shoulder. The corners of his mouth twisted in a grin. "We're a team."
She leaned her head on his biceps. The blueness of the sky swirled overhead as they walked along. "Do you long for adventure, Kirigi?" She couldn't hide the worry in her voice. "Do you find Dashrani and the inn so dull?"
The hesitation that preceded his answer told more than any words. But finally he said, "You keep me too busy to dream about adventure, and between you and old Tamen things are never dull."
She closed her eyes, suddenly tired, ready to sleep, once more fully aware of that strange sense of impending -- what?
"It's never so wonderful as we believe when we're young," she told her son as he guided her down the road. "Kimon and I learned the hard way." She stopped suddenly and peered back the way they had come. The dusty road seemed an appropriate metaphor for her life.
"We wandered most of the known nations and several lands marked on no map ever drawn by men," she said softly. "Lots of places, lots of adventures." She put her arms around Kirigi and hugged him, then leaned her head on his bronzed chest. "But after a while we discovered that the quiet times we spent together were far more meaningful and fulfilling than all the battles and exotic wonders. Then we began to worry and fear for each other. Adventure meant danger; the two go hand in hand like lovers. And danger meant that one of us could end up all alone again. We'd had too much of being alone."
"So you bought the inn and settled down," Kirigi interrupted.
"It wasn't easy at first. At least not for me, though I think it was what Kimon really wanted all along. I looked out the door every morning, just like I do now, and I saw this very road. It tormented me. Strangers came and went, afoot or on horseback, in carts and caravans. Gods! I thought. What cities had they seen that I hadn't heard about? What places were they going that I would never see?"
She drew a deep breath and kicked dust with her toe. "Gradually, though, we became part of Dashrani. And we found that all those times on the road paled beside the good times we discovered here." She folded her arms about herself, looked up, and surveyed the sky. It was purest azure except for the line of clouds in the north. They made a creeping advance. She rubbed the back of her neck as she watched them, reminded yet again of a nagging trepidation.
"It wasn't enough for Kel," Kirigi said abruptly.
Samidar bit her lip and turned away so he couldn't see her face. Suddenly the sun didn't seem as warm or the breeze as friendly. The birdsongs of morning became a harsh, irritating noise. "Let's go back," she urged. "I'm worn out."
He touched her shoulder. "I'm sorry."
"It's all right," she answered shortly. "I'm just tired. We'll grab some sleep. Then there's a lot to do this afternoon before we open."
"If you're thinking about the cheese, don't. Khasta came in for a hasty drink last night. I talked with him, and he promised to drive out today with a wagon full of his best."
Actually, she'd forgotten about the cheese. All she wanted was to sleep and for the increasing throb in her head to go away. She scraped her nails over the back of one hand and frowned. The grease on her skin made white half-moons under the nails. She could use a bath, too.
"Any other tasks can wait," Kirigi continued. "It's your birthday, and you deserve a respite. Our customers will understand. They have wives to clean their houses, but do they stay home? No, they come to us for their pleasure. They'll survive a little dirt tonight."
"Maybe I should hire a few girls," she joked halfheartedly.
"I wouldn't object," he admitted with a leer. "There's a discouraging lack of anonymous young ladies around here."
"What's wrong with the girls of Dashrani?" she prodded. "Go court them. You have enough to offer any female." Indeed he had, she noted with a sidewise glance.
"When I have to face their fathers every night?" He moaned, rolled his eyes in mock alarm. "Fathers deep in their cups? I've little taste for that kind of adventure."
She smacked his bare rump playfully. Then, arms linked, they headed back toward the inn. The sun was warm on her shoulders and neck, and it glinted off the spires of Dashrani. It wouldn't last, though. The northern clouds grew steadily darker and they made swift advance.
"If it rains, Khasta may not come," Kirigi said.
"If it rains, he won't need to," she answered. "Those look bad. A big storm's coming." She ran a hand through her long hair and frowned. Why did she feel so tense, suddenly so full of unknown fright? "Bad for business," she muttered, staring at the sky, hugging herself.
They went the rest of the way in silence. The smell of leaves and new grass floated in the air. Within Dashrani's wall, the townsfolk would be awake and about their early chores. Farmers would be heading for the fields. Samidar gazed down the road. It ran right into the city through the gate and beyond. In her memory the gate had never been closed. It was one of the things about the city that had convinced her to settle here. Everyone was welcome. There had been a garrison once, but little crime to justify it. Dashrani was a fat, lazy town, and its people were friendly. There was a saying known all over Keled-Zaram: "There are no strangers in Dashrani."
It took her eyes a moment to adjust to the inn's gloom. Coming behind, Kirigi bumped into her when she stopped abruptly.
They hadn't closed the door when they'd left. One of Riothamus's soldiers leaned on the farthest table, his back to them, drinking from an earthenware mug.
"We're closed," she said stonily. "Come back later, but be sure you lay down a coin for what you've helped yourself to."
The soldier rose to his feet, turned slowly around.
Samidar's jaw dropped. She blinked, stared. Kirigi's face split in a big grin, and he rushed forward to embrace the intruder exuberantly. Then he stood aside. The rapt look on his young face told Samidar he was as surprised as she.
A mixture of emotions trembled through her, rooting her to the spot where she stood.
Finally, the soldier extended a hand and spoke. The voice was almost exactly as she remembered it, a little deeper, but otherwise unchanged, tinged, as always, with mockery.
He said, "Dance for me, Mother!"
Copyright © 1986 by Robin W. Bailey