“You! Who are you?!” Simay exclaimed as quietly as she could in her fear.
Seda stared wide-eyed at the dark-haired, brown-skinned stranger shrouded in midnight moonlight.
“There is no need to be quiet, Simay. I mixed a little something special in with their food after they had served everyone under twenty.” The man said.
Simay was speechless, but her wordlessness wore off within the minute.
“How do you know my name?” Simay demanded, a little more loudly this time.
“I joined the caravan just after you did. My name is Malcus. Now, how about we get all of you out of here.” He beckoned the two girls out of the wagon before waking up all the other captured children and teenagers.
No one argued with their strange rescuer. All of the former slaves-to-be scattered in different directions and disappeared into the night – all of them that was, except Seda. The girl remained at Simay’s side as the group of three quickly ran back to the pair of swift and beautiful dish-faced horses that Malcus had somehow brought for them.
Malcus helped the two girls up onto one horse and then swung up onto his own. Simay and Malcus urged the mounts into an easy canter for a minute before spurring them on to a faster pace. The horses made good time through the cool desert sand.
Simay looked around once in a while as they rode, but she did not recognize anything. She was too concerned that despite the heavy sedative the slavers would awaken to find that their income had run away. She feared that they would find the hoof-prints and pursue them.
After riding for a while with no signs of pursuit, Malcus motioned a halt. Simay pulled her mount to a not-so-sudden stop. The highly-strung Arabian picked up on Simay’s nerves and chomped at his bit trying to get control of it. Simay did not allow him that luxury and within a few minutes both the horse and Simay were a little calmer.
“Are you okay, Seda?” Simay asked breathing heavily from the adrenaline-fueled ride for freedom.
“Yes. I’m fine.” Seda managed through labored breaths of her own.
“Okay.” Simay whispered before jumping off of the heaving horse and stomping over to Malcus.
“I’m sorry I had to get you out so quickly without -” he did not get a chance to finish.
Simay’s hand came flying towards Malcus’s face and Seda grimaced as she heard a loud slap.
“What was that for?!” Malcus’s irritation started to show. “I just saved you and you hit me?”
“I don’t even know you!” Simay whispered loudly. “I’ve seen you a handful of times at most. How do I know you don’t have self-serving intentions of your own?”
“You came with me, didn’t you?” he retorted.
Simay looked down at the sand. “I did.” She pursed her lips and looked up at him. For the first time she noticed that he didn’t look quite as average as she had first thought he did. She shook the thought out of her head. She didn’t even know this man.
“Simay.” Malcus took hold of her shoulders. The suddenness of his movement made her jump and she resisted the urge to shriek.
Malcus’s frustration melted when he saw Simay’s startled look, and he tried to reassure her, “Simay, it’s okay. I’m not going to hurt you or your friend. I want to help you. I know I haven’t really given you any other reason to trust me than getting you out of that wagon back there, but I think I have something here that will help.”
Simay watched in stunned silence as the young man reached into one of his saddle bags and withdrew something that glinted in the starlight.
“I believe you left this back at camp.” He handed the item to her.
Simay almost cried when the little silver bear slipped into her hands. She looked down at the statue, then back up at Malcus and back to the statue.
Malcus smiled down at Simay and the dam holding back her tears burst. She threw her arms around her rescuer’s waist and hugged him in gratitude.
Malcus looked down at the short girl and hugged her in return. His tall frame made the movement a little awkward, but he managed it.
He realized again that he was going completely against his High Priestess’s wishes and that he didn’t care a wit about his rebellion.
When Simay finally let go of Malcus, she looked around and realized that the young man had not made them stop randomly in the desert. There was a nearby rock formation. Behind it waited a few well-supplied camels.
Simay looked back at Seda. The other girl had gotten down off of the horse and was pretending to stoke its muzzle while awkwardly sneaking glances at Simay and Malcus. When she saw Seda’s surreptitious glances she realized what she was doing and immediately let go of the young man.
“Th-thank you, sir.”
Malcus laughed and Simay scowled at him. “I’m not laughing at you Simay. You don’t have to call me ‘sir.’ I’m only twenty-five. You make me feel like my grandfather when you call me that.”
“Oh.” Simay let a little smile replace her frown. She realized that it was one of the first real signs of mirth that she had had since she was six.
“Now, what is your friend’s name?” he asked.
“That’s Seda.” Simay said as she motioned the girl over to them.
Seda led the now-calm horse over to Simay and Malcus.
“Seda helped all the girls who had been caught by the slavers. She helped us to not be so afraid of everything that had happened to us. She probably didn’t think that what she did was much, but it was.” Simay smiled gratefully at her new friend. “So if you’re taking me somewhere, I want you to take Seda too.” She looked at the other girl, “Unless you have family to go back to or some place better to be.” Simay looked at Seda hopefully.
Seda looked Malcus up and down carefully and then looked back at Simay. The girl nodded and smiled. “I’ll come with you. I suppose you can’t go off with this guy alone.”
Simay hugged her new friend and a real smile spread across her face. “Thank you!”
“Well, if you girls are done with your theatrics, we had better go pick up the camels and get going.”
Both girls nodded and helped each other get back up on their horse. They rode the short distance from where they were over to the camels. Malcus wasted no time in tying the camels together and connecting the lead line to the girls’ saddle, then connecting their horse to his own.
Soon their little patchwork caravan was moving.
Over the next several months, Seda learned about Simay’s past and through a series of rather frightening encounters, she learned about the Spirit of Diana as well. As a result, Seda became the very first follower of Simay and her descendants.
One night several days after Seda’s decision to pledge her loyalty to Simay’s goddess, Simay was sitting by the campfire with Malcus discussing their respective pasts.
“You’re a Jew?!” Simay exclaimed.
“By blood, yes, but not by religion. I became a follower of Artemis when I was sixteen. My family lived in Lystra. I ran away from home when I was a little younger than you, and I ended up in Ephesus.” He conveniently left out that he had spent the past seven years as a Temple-employed assassin. Simay did not need to know about the part of his life anyway. He wasn’t going back to hunting down innocents.
“Well, I never would have guessed it, Malcus. You don’t have a Jewish name.”
“I changed it.”
“Oh. I suppose you shave too?”
“Never could grow facial hair.” Malcus shrugged.
Simay laughed and shook her head.
“Now that you know my secret…” Malcus probed, “What were you and Seda talking about a few nights ago, when you both stayed up all night and were dead tired the next day?”
Simay stopped laughing. “I’m not sure you really want to know about that, Malcus. It’s not that important.”
“It seemed to be important enough a few days ago.”
Simay looked away. “Well, maybe it was important.” she admitted.
“What was it then?” he tried again.
Simay sat silently for a moment looking into the flickering fire.
“Malcus?” she looked back at him. “Do you remember about ten years ago when there was that huge uproar about someone stealing one of the Temple artifacts while most of the town was at that meeting in the amphitorium?”
“Yes, I remember that.”
“Well…” she looked away again. “I was there when it happened.”
“But you would only have been six years old. Why would you have been there?”
“Because – because my mother was the thief.” Simay finally looked at Malcus again.
Malcus looked at Simay very strangely. “Simay… you don’t mean to tell me that that bear is from – ”
“Yes, Malcus it is. And I’m not taking it back! Ever! It’s too late to do that anyway.”
“Okay. Okay. I wasn’t going to try to make you. I know better than that by now.” Malcus defended.
“Good.” Simay said defiantly, but a little less angrily. She folded her arms and stared back at the fire.
“Simay.” Malcus intruded.
“I’m sure there was a good reason for what your mother did.”
“You bet there was.” Simay’s words had a bite to them.
“Would you tell me?” he gently prodded.
Simay let out a loud sigh. “I guess.”
Malcus sat attentively as Simay recounted to him how her mother had taken the statue; the events that had transpired a little bit later that fateful night when Nuray had made the pact with Diana; the drudgery of the next years as Simay had been forced to take care of herself for the most part; the night she had betrayed her mother…
“That night when I got home, Diana told me about the caravan leaving Ephesus. She told me that I needed to go to the Arabian Desert. I have to get there, Malcus! I can’t break my promise to Diana.” Tears ran down Simay’s face as she said this.
Malcus put a comforting hand on her shoulder. “We’ll get there, Simay. I promise you we will.”
Simay attempted to smile at him through her tears.
After that night, Simay and Malcus had many conversations that lasted well into the night. Sometimes Seda joined them, but more often than not she left them to themselves. Malcus dedicated himself to helping Simay fulfill her mother’s promise to Diana and became the second follower of Simay and her line.
Two years later, not long after Simay’s eighteenth birthday, Malcus asked Simay to take a walk with him a short distance from the camp. It was late and Seda was already asleep, but Simay agreed to come. Malcus took Simay’s hand in his and led her out across the now-cool sands.
A little way out from the camp, Simay realized that she had forgotten to bring anything to shield her from the cold of the desert night.
Malcus noticed her discomfort and draped his outer cloak around Simay’s shoulders.
The two engaged in friendly banter as they waded through the sand to some unknown destination.
Malcus finally called a halt. Simay was out of breath from the climb up the sand dune that they now stood atop.
“Why are we all the way out here, Malcus?” Simay looked sideways at the young man who had become her best friend over the last two years.
“Do you remember the night I saved you from those mercenary slavers?”
“Of course I remember. That was the night I slapped you.”
“Oh, is that how you remember it?” Malcus grinned.
“And what if it is? I very much enjoyed that slap, thank you. You deserved it.” She smiled back.
“Maybe I did.” He relented. “But do you know why I rescued you?”
Simay sensed that this conversation was about to go in a completely different direction. “Why…?” she asked warily.
“I didn’t want to tell you then. I was afraid you wouldn’t believe me…”
“I’ll believe you now.” She assured him.
“I know, Simay.” He sighed and looked down for a moment. His feet shifted uneasily in the sand and the fine grains poured into his sandals, over his brown feet and between his toes. He did not seem to register the irritant. “I know your mother is gone, and you never really talk about your father. For all I know my parents are dead. In any case, they don’t know where I am or what I’m doing. I guess that makes you and me orphans of sorts.”
“I suppose so.” Simay agreed.
“And since we’re orphans that means that there isn’t anyone else to make important decisions for us, right?” he looked at her for confirmation.
Simay nodded slowly.
“There’s something very important that I need to tell you, Simay.” He took both of her hands and held them in his. “The reason I joined that caravan two years ago was because of you.”
She looked at Malcus questioningly. “Because of me? But that doesn’t make any sense. You didn’t even know me.”
“But I did, Simay.” He said very seriously. “I – I was hired.”
“Hired? For what?”
“I was hired to kill you.”
At his words, Simay froze. Fear shrouded her face now. She didn’t struggle. She didn’t even try to pull her captured hands away. The only thing that went through her mind was that Diana had betrayed her, just like the goddess had betrayed her mother, but she was caught completely off guard by Malcus’s next words.
“I followed you home from the Temple that night. I watched you those next two weeks as you prepared to leave Ephesus, and I intended to kill you as soon as you made a move to leave the city limits, but Aayla never counted on her prized assassin growing a conscience… and a heart. I couldn’t do it – I couldn’t kill you.”
“Wh – what are you saying, Malcus?”
“I’m saying I love you!”
Simay stood there in utter shock. “Malcus…”
He looked at her and said not a word as he waited for her to process everything he had just said to her. He knew that once she understood the implications of his words that she would either slap him again or hug him. To his relief, she did the latter.
“You make no sense to me, Malcus.” Simay said quietly as she hugged him. “But I have something I need to tell you too.”
“I love you too, Malcus.”
“Yes, I do.” She said seriously.
The two of them stood quietly on the windy sand dune until Malcus sprang one more surprise on Simay.
“This is completely unorthodox and downright unacceptable in most places, but since your father is not here to make this decision for you, I would like to ask you to make it yourself.”
Simay’s heart began to beat faster as she started to understand why Malcus had brought her here tonight.
“Would you consent to becoming my wife?” he said and waited anxiously for Simay’s reply.
“Do you have anymore secrets I should know about? A fortune or something?”
“No.” he chuckled with relief. “Unfortunately not.”
“Then, yes. I will be your wife.” She smiled mischievously, “As long as you get to get the camel chips for the camp fires.”
“Okay.” He relented. “I guess I can do that.”