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Dawn Flower

In desperation Zarah and her mistress, the Princess Oholibollah, scrambled up a mountain path to escape the Horite caravaneers who had discovered them alone in the desert. Having lost their armed escort as they were fighting their way out of a besieged Sebaean city, the young, unmarried women had no weapons but what women might have--two small daggers tucked in their robes.

The rocky trail up a tall rocky outcrop in the desert that goats had made terminated at the entrance to a cave; they had sought refuge there, but the caravaneers, overjoyed at their find, would not be put off and came for them.

Two Virgins Besieged

The Sebaean princess, having lost her parents, her people, and her city in the attack by an army of Babylonian Kassites on horseback, would have thrown herself down the side of the cliff beneath them, but her astute maid thought they might be saved--for she had prayed a great deal to Seba's moon-god during the siege.

"There is only one track leading to this cave by which they can come," she told the trembling, despairing princess. "I will die before I let them reach you."

The princess shook her head as she stared at her brave companion.

Princess Oholibollah

"You are mad!" she cried. "We cannot stop them; they will certainly come and dishonor us, if we do not kill ourselves!"

Her maid, however, had an idea. Throwing off her clothes and disrobing to her waist, wearing only a pice of cloth around her breast and women's loose under leg-coverings, the maid moved grimly toward the cave entrance and took her station just outside.

The first visitor was not long in coming. He crept upwards, setting his feet warily as a goat as he eyed the maiden leaning seductively against the rock face and smiling winsomely to him.

Zarah and Prospective Lover

"O fairest jewel among women, come out to me and partake of divine love!" Lotan said with coaxing accents, though his language was unknown and his tones barbarous to city-bred maidens such as these highly cultured Sebaeans.

Drawing off his robe in anticipation so that he wore only an undergarment from the waist down that barely concealed his ardor, he came closer yet and held forth a bag of necklaces of cheap glass beads in his dark-nailed fingers. His teeth flashed in a reassuring smile as he reached in a stealthy movement to catch Zarah's plump, bare, extended arm.

The furtive movement was his last.

Zarah suddenly darted forward and pushed, and the Horite toppled and was flung headfirst down the cliff. His cry was cut short by his naked plunge onto the sharp rocks below.

There was considerable hubbub amidst the caravaneers gathered at the base of the cliff; and the two women enjoyed their triumph for the remainder of the afternoon, while the men buried the hapless Lotan in a shallow grave of sand and rock and later cast lots.

Before the second moon (for the world had not yet grown accustomed to its new sun) rose a knucklebone die had fallen to Shobal, a man who happened to be older and wiser than the foolish, hot-blooded youth who had gone up with only a necklace in hand.

Shobal knew they must be thirsty by now, for there would be no water in such a place, however safe they thought themselves, so he took along a goatskin of water. But he knew he could not trust the women not to take the water and throw him to the vultures too, so he took rope to tie their hands once he had overcome them. If need be, he would kill one of them if he could not safely bring both together down from the cliff.

While Shobal was devising these and other strategems, the women relaxed a bit, thinking that their ordeal might end that evening. If no one else came, soon it would be dark. They would not have to think of warding off attackers, for, aside from wild beasts, no man, they knew, would be so foolish to scale such a perilous cliff in the dark.

It is true they were becoming very thirsty, but they were exulting in their initial success and still had hope of more when they saw the men had not given up and were returning to try their defenses once more time.

While light remained their assailant approached within range of their laughing voices. Encouraging him, Zarah showed herself as before and could hardly keep from laughing in his face.

"We are so sorry about your friend! Perhaps he was not so careful and his foot slipped on a loose stone or a bead of his fine necklaces!"

Shobal had traveled widely and knew the Sebaean tongue very well from many trade contacts in the past. He was delighted they could understand one another so well. Now that he could speak with the women, he told them he had come as a friend, bearing the gift of water. Surely they were reasonable women and would take a sip or two of his sparkling refreshment. He meant them no harm, he assured them. What harm was there in accepting a little water from a friend like Shobal?

The man poured out some water before Zarah's eyes, and she gasped at his extravagance; for water was too precious a thing in the desert to be wasted by pouring it on the ground.

"You will not push me over like you did my poor, dull-witted friend!" the Horite laughed. "You can have the water only if you go back in the cave and let me come in to each of you in turn."

Zarah gasped, rubbed her throat as if it were raw and parched, and panted.

"We must have your water, my lord, or we will perish! You hurt our feelings. We wouldn't think of tricking a fox-headed man such as you! Yes, we will do as you say!"

Zarah, swinging her hips like a dancer, all the better to make the little pom pons dance that fringed her under leggings at the waist. disappeared into the cave. Shobal, after a moment of consideration, followed with feline caution.

The goatskin was still in his hands when he stepped inside the cave with his robe already flung aside for action and a large stone plumped directly on his head, crushing his skull.

He fell down at once and lay helplessly as the women stood exulting over the naked fool.

He was not yet insensible, however, though he was dying.

"Would you send me down to Sheol a laughingstock?" he cried to the women. "Give me a dagger! I must not die by the hand of a woman!"

Zarah seized Shobal's dagger and put it in his limp hand, but his eyelids closed before he could pierce his throat and save his honor.

The cave resounded with shrieks of hysterical joy for several moments. Then the two women dragged the carcass outside and sent it careening down the cliffside to join its predecessor.

They listened then to the howls of rage from the men below, which gradually subsided as the Horites settled down for the night.

Now the women had plenty water, and it was enough to last them days; though they would weaken eventually from lack of food.

Twice outwitted by mere females, the caravaneers were all the more set on capture, lest the story of the two men's ignoble deaths be noised about and spread among the other caravans to their unspeakable shame.

Most of the following day was given to the burial and mourning of the second unfortunate, followed by endless discussions of tactics; everyone saw, of course, what a foolish thing it had been to let water be delivered to the women. But since the men believed the women would run short of food, they knew it was just a matter of time before they would be forced out.

Younger men, with the hot juices of wild asses inflaming their veins and swelling their muscles, argued for another attempt on foot that very day.

Other men with beards shot through with silver or gray gained the better of the argument by pointing toward the circling vultures. "If you go up there without a better plan, the eagles and the hyenas will pick your bones too, just as they picked the bones of poor Lotan and Shobal!" the shrewd gray-beards admonished the feckless youth.

So the caravaneers waited another day, then another; meanwhile the famished wome

n could wait no more. The princess stripped off her royal rings and jewels and pressed them on her protesting maid.

"You are stronger and will survive where I, with my royal dignity, cannot. Take these things and go on without me, for after you go I intend to throw myself off the cliff!" she told the horrified Zarah.

When the maid was ready to go, with the fine things hidden beneath her ordinary clothes, the princess sat down to give further commands.

"You will have to go from here and seek help and a new life for yourself. It is night, and you can, perhaps, slip away unseen. If the men hear me calling out to them from time to time, they will think we are both in the cave. That will turn their attention. So go!"

Zarah fell to weeping and hanging on her mistress's arms, then hugged her knees like a suppliant in the desert manner, but it was to no avail.

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