Zahra paced the length of the small hut she called home. Hadi had said he would be there that afternoon. He had promised that he wouldn’t be late, even though he had been on every occasion that they had met – urgent and not.
“There is nothing under the sun that can’t wait,” he would say with a mischievous grin and hug her out of her consequent sulk. She smiled at the memory despite her worry but did not stop in her pacing.
Hadi had approached her a few months back asking her name as she bartered her parents’ farm produce on market day. Since then, every market day, without fail, he would bring a few tomatoes and get some potatoes and a yam in return. She wasn’t sure where he took all the potatoes and yams – he certainly didn’t eat them. He hated yams, he had said. She had laughed in surprise realising that the only reason he got so many was because he got to see her even briefly.
She smiled some more and shook her head.
He was a cheeky one. But she loved him. Truly she did. And this time, he’d said he would come and see her in the bright light of day in her homestead. That could really only mean one thing. And so she paced and kept glancing up at the road over the fence and around the grove of trees at the end of the road.
Where on earth was he? She began to worry that something had happened to him. Perhaps he was injured in some way and could not come? If he was that hurt, how would she know? Sometimes she wished she had the powers of the spirits her people worshipped. She would have been able to know if he was hurt or… or if he had changed his mind. She shook her head and stomped her foot, hands on her hips.
Hadi was not that kind of man. He might be tardy with his appointments (even the Village Elders couldn’t get him to a rites ceremony on time – he had almost missed his initiation much to his parents’ chagrin) but he would never break a promise. That was one thing she was sure of about him. He had promised – right before he’d playfully kissed her and told her that he loved her.
“Not even the moon and stars could stop me,” he’d said. So where was he?
Her father would probably get impatient and it was almost time to serve the evening meal. She had been so preoccupied with this visit during the day that she’d nearly burned the millet porridge her mother had helped her prepare. Because this was an affair only for the man, the woman he was courting and her father, Zahra’s mother and siblings had gone over to stay with her aunts and cousins for a while. When the issue was sorted, they would be summoned and the celebration could begin.
Giving the path one last look in the dying light of the sun, Zahra went over to the fire and poked at it. He would still come. She had faith in him. Hadi would not abandon her – would not shame her in this way. Half the village knew they were courting. It would be shameful, at this late stage, for her to just be cast aside.
She got up and paced again. Maybe she was being impatient. Her mother often teased her for her impatience telling her that her patience was as short-lived as the flowers she was named after. She would wait a little longer, she decided. She would be patient for Hadi.
All the same, her pacing increased until she could wait no longer. It was time for the evening meal and still Hadi had not arrived. Shaking her head in mild annoyance, for she was sure he was still on his way, she went to the cooking hut and served the millet porridge, green vegetables and yams she had made for her father.
He would, of course, ask her if this was the man she really wanted to marry, always being late, even to important functions like this. She was still young her father would point out, Zahra having only just seen her ten and ninth long rain season. By now, she would be married; she mused, and should be taking care of a family of her own – which she would get to as soon as Hadi deigned to appear.
As she gave her father the gourd of porridge and served the yams on a wooden platter, she looked into the dark empty doorway. Could something have happened to him? What if she was here worrying about his showing up when he may have been suffering a slow and painful death even then? She bit her nail anxiously as she sat beside her father to wait for Hadi.
“He is very late I see,” commented her father. Zahra could only nod. Fear gnawed at her belly. Hadi was always late, but this late? Especially when he knew what was at stake? Maybe something else had come up and he could not make it? Only a summons from the village elders could waylay any other business – even funerals had been held off in favour of an Elder’s summons.
As if in answer to her question, Hadi and two of her brothers rushed into the hut with grim looks on their faces. Whatever relief she felt in that moment, it was short-lived. Each of them carried their spears, daggers and shields and wore their most protective clothing. Hadi gave her an apologetic smile. Her father saw them and calmly put down his plate.
“The elders have called all men to arms. There are a number of foreign men heading in this direction. We have to be ready for them.”
Zahra’s dread only increased. She had heard of these men. Unlike the missionaries and traders who often came by to visit the church or the local market, the “foreigners” were a bloodthirsty group. They pillaged villages as they pleased taking women and children hostage whenever it pleased them and leaving only death and destruction in their wake. They were feared by everyone.
Her friend Didi who had married into a family in the neighbouring village had been taken in a raid three harvests back and that had been the last they had heard of her and many others. Very few had managed to escape but that particular village was now no more.
And now here they were, about to invade her home and probably kill or take away those she loved.
“Zahra,” said her father turning to her, “go to your mother. Tell them the news and tell them to stay where they are until one of us comes for them. Hadi, I trust you can see my daughter safely to her relatives. Go with Yane,” he said rising and gesturing to Zahra’s cousin.
Zahra rose to go with the two.
“Zahra,” called her father. She turned and looked at him. He clearly read the fear in her eyes and the worry etched on her face.
“Do not worry so. These two will keep you safe - stay hidden, all of you. Avoid the main paths if you can.”
They nodded and Zahra caught her father’s hand in hers. Overt displays of affection were only ever saved for younger siblings and mothers. Her father understood what she meant by this action and gently squeezed his daughter’s hand. Placing his other hand on her head as a sign of blessing, he bid her safe journey and went to get his weapons.
Zahra left the homestead with Hadi and Yane in the dark of the night. Hadi took her hand at some point in the journey and she was grateful for the comfort it offered. On a normal day, they would have walked hand in hand away from prying eyes. Such actions were only allowed lovers and family. It would have embarrassed them both to display such actions in public. They usually walked this way leisurely along the river as Hadi regaled her with tales of his adventures.
Being the son of a farmer and a warrior blacksmith, it would seem, provided him with many opportunities to explore the land. His mother worked the land and his father was a village elder and the chief blacksmith in the village. He made the best weapons and apprenticed many warriors with his skill in battle. He had fought three of the Five Great Wars and come back mostly unharmed with much to his credit. Hadi’s father was well-respected. It trickled down to Hadi himself who was both honourable and respectful. With his bright eyes and cheeky smile – he could have had any girl in the village... but he had chosen her and she could not have been happier that he had.
Now, however, there was no teasing, no light-hearted humour for the journey, only quiet strength seeping into her through his warm grip. This may have been in part because of Yane acting as chaperone but the situation that necessitated this journey was equally dampening to the mood. Her hand was slightly cold and a little clammy but she clung to his like it was life. There was no telling what they could face and the fear that lay deep in her belly would not ease until they were safe. On they walked in silence keeping away from the path and going through the bush by ways she had not used since she was a child.
It was strange to think that things she had learned as a child now kept her safe. Perhaps that was why exploration was allowed in the first place. All children knew every hidden path through the bush, making new ones where there were none. There was nowhere they could not travel to keep safe if need be. Even as adults tended to keep to the main paths, they knew the hidden ways well.
Soon, the hut that housed the rest of Zahra’s siblings came into view. This helped to ease some of her fear but not all of it. Now she would have to bid Hadi farewell not knowing if he would return. Wise to the situation, Yane walked on ahead telling the two to stay behind while he scouted and made sure it was safe to approach. Hadi and Zahra stood behind a tree waiting for Yane to return and give them the news.
Hadi looked down at Zahra and drew her slowly into his arms. She did not complain or resist and wrapped her own arms around him, taking comfort in his solid warmth.
“I was going to be on time for the first time in my life,” he said resting his chin on her head. She laid her head against his chest and smiled squeezing him a little as they stood in the silent embrace.
“Will this be a bad war?” she asked. The question had plagued her and she was sure she knew the answer without his reply. It most certainly would.
“Only the gods know the answer to that... Ah, my flower,” he sighed, using the nickname he used for her when they were alone, “we will still get married. You’ll see. Once I come back, I’ll come and speak to your father properly, and then we’ll get back to the ceremony.”
Zahra reached for his face, her fingers travelling over his hair, his nose, his lips, attempting to commit every feature to memory. She knew she had to think positively, but one thing she had always been was realistic. Hadi may not come back from this and though it pained her to think, she may never recover from it either. Theirs was a beautiful love, full of understanding and compromise, something that was almost unheard of among their people.
Hadi intended, he told her, to treat her like a queen. And she was very certain he would. The gentle man could turn savage when necessary – and she had seen this in many a fight; Hadi was as skilled a warrior as his father and he always fought with honour – but even when he disagreed with her, he never raised his voice or his hand against her. His family was also quite wealthy so she would want for nothing. She would still be expected to take care of the home and, she'd thought with a slight blush whenever the topic came up, she would be gladly doing so for the man she loved.
There was so much to yet be explored – so much she had yet to learn about him. The gods could not be so cruel. The Creator – the God above all others – would not, could not be so cruel as to tear them apart now...
Hadi took her fingers in his hand and kissed them. Zahra pulled her hand free and curled her fingers around the back of his neck pulling him down until their lips met. It was a better kiss than any other they had shared. Usually, theirs were short and sweet, as most lovers in the village were known to share. This was like none of those.
If Hadi was surprised by her initiative, he did not show it and instead let himself be swept away right along with her in the torrent of passion that was their love. His arms wrapped around her, holding her to him as the kiss deepened. In the darkness of the night, with only this moment assured them, they took a step further into what they had always known to be forbidden.
Before, when they stole a few moments alone and had a chance to kiss, she would always stop him short. There was more, she knew, but she would never venture further and he would never force himself on her. He seemed to know what it was that came next and it remained a mystery to her (and probably would until their wedding night) but she made sure it stayed that way, curious as she sometimes got.
She did not stop him when he squeezed her waist drawing a gasp from her at the sensation. He pressed her against the tree and she wrapped her arms around him revelling in the kiss, the intimacy of the moment overwhelming her. She did not stop him as his hands wandered even though they did not wander very far. This was their moment to share, even as brief as it was.
They would not have time to explore this mystical land of lovers tonight, she knew even as they separated and he rested his forehead on hers. Their passion would still have to be held back for another day, and she felt the effort of doing so in the taut muscles of his arm and his jaw. It was as hard and frustrating for him to hold back as it had been for her.
“You had better come back,” she said gently stroking his cheek with her thumb. He nodded quietly in response and she felt, rather than saw his smile – the one that always seemed to turn her insides into tree sap. Yane was even now returning and they were not to be caught in such a compromising position. Their private time together was at an end. Hadi kissed her forehead and picked up his discarded weapons, once more assuming the role of protector.
“It’s all quiet ahead,” said Yane from around the tree. Zahra swallowed and stepped out of the shadows with Hadi. Their separation was imminent. Zahra squeezed Hadi’s hand and he squeezed back. When they were inside the homestead, Zahra went on alone and was greeted by her family. She was relieved to be in their arms once more, assured of their safety. Turning back, she caught sight of Hadi and Yane leaving, their profiles simply melting into the surrounding darkness.
Now all they could do was pray and wait.