Closer, the party was less forbidding but still dangerous looking. Several men with lances and bows followed Yamm. Beyond them came several women and Anath saw they were loaded down like pack animals. As she watched one, she stumbled and one of the men slapped her across the face loudly berating her clumsiness.
Anath winced at the sight; she had heard some from the fringes of the sands worshipped cruel and violent deities who did not value women, but this was the first she had seen what that meant. They did not recognize a woman’s strength. They were certainly not like her mother’s people.
Jamm came towards them, a tall muscular man with a hard face and bold eyes. His apparent male strength would have been enough for her people, but she evidence of deep vanity in his nature by the gold bracelets he wore and the fine cloth wrapped around his waist. A warrior or a traveler would not wear such as those. They were the spoils of a thief, worn simply to prove his ability to raid trading parties and steal from anyone he encountered.
He came near enough to eye the two girls as they stood at the foot of the pile of large rocks. He smiled in way that made Anath wary; he was like the cat playing with the mouse.
“Hadad’s little sisters!” he called out as stopped. His eyes moved over each of the girls in a way that was insulting and Anath felt a sudden desire to cleanse herself. “You grow ... lovelier each time I see you.”
He came close enough that she had to lift her eyes. He smelled of sweat and spices she could not name. At last he turned toward Asheroh and lingered longer on the younger girls face. He was intrigued seemingly, by the way the wind rustled the tight ringlets of her dark hair about her shoulders. She saw her sister fight an urge to back away. “My dear friend Hadad must offer me his hospitality, " the man said never taking his eyes from the girl," so I may come to know his family better.”
“I am sure, both my father and Hadad would welcome the opportunity to greet you,” Anath told him."To show you the proper respects."
He darted a look at Anath and merely laughed at her words. His strayed back to linger on Asheroh’s form in a manner that was making her sister very uncomfortable. He glanced back at her, “Your eyes Anath, they reveal that welcome would likely be a knife to my throat if you were your father or Hadad.”
He stepped forward suddenly and both girls retreated instinctively.
Anath knew then she had made a fatal error as his eyes flashed suddenly to her face. She knew he wanted her sister in the way a man took a woman. Her sister was little more than a child but in great danger from a man like Yamm. Her sister, and even herself, faced a greater danger in this man than any wild sand cat.
He moved toward her sister in such a way as to put himself between the two girls. Out of the corner of her eyes she saw one of his men move slightly. They planned something. Instinctively, Anath stepped forward blocking Jamm’s move, one hand resting on the hilt of the knife in her belt. The big man swung around with a snarl, his fist raise, but her blade sliced into the fleshly part of his arm before he moved very far.
In the blink of an eye, the scene had changed from casual threat to one of lethal waiting danger. The very air around them seemed to still as the drama unfolded.
“Back!” she hissed. Jamm's mask fell and he locked his coal black eyes with her vivid blue ones.
His only response, however, was a growl, deep in his chest. A small ribbon of blood was creeping down his arm and his eyes were deep pools of angry hate.
Anath knew the man creeping towards them had halted. If she knew her sister, she too had her blade out. The men may have thought them easy prey but that idea would be quickly swept away. Quickly, her mind was reviewing every lesson and every tactic she had ever learned or heard the others discuss.
'You will pay for that!" He snarled. His eyes flicked quickly between the two. "You will both pay for that."
“Animal!” she spat out the word. She looked him in the face and moved in closer. She was glad of her height because now they were nearly eye to eye. “You are little more than an animal! Get back now, before I slit you from side to side.”
The other men were pressing forward but he impatiently waved them back. He pointed at Asheroth with a smile that was all bravado. ”You little one, I will see again and very soon.”
Holding his cut arm, he spun around toward Anath and leaned into her face, almost hissing the words, “And I will enjoy every moment of your payment for this!”
As the party moved away, Yamm leading the way with angry stride, Asheroh slumped down into the hot sand.
“What were you thinking! He could have killed you…us.” She told her sister. “Without even trying he could have skinned us alive.”
Anath took a deep, somewhat ragged breath, and realized she had not breathed for some time. “I don’t know….”
Staggering slightly she realized what she had done. She looked to the group now fading into the sun haze once more and slumped down to join her sister.
Asherot took her hand and squeezed it, “It was brave. Father would have been proud.”
“Turga would have railed at me. I had no balance. I let anger and fear control me. I – .”
“You saved us. “ Her sister broke in softly, halting her irritated rant. “He meant us harm; he meant me harm. I had visions of him bundling me off with them to carry loads of blankets and pots!”
“That would never happen. Nobody can make you work!” Anath laughed as her sister punched her shoulder.
“He did mean us harm, sister.”
“Yes, he did.” Anath agreed. The weakness of reaction had faded leaving in its wake a sudden awareness. All the lessons from Turga and the others seemed to be making sense now in the aftermath of the confrontation. “And with men like Yamm, I am afraid he won’t forgive or forget either.”