After these things, when the anger of King Ahasuerus had abated, he remembered Vashti and what she had done and what had been decreed against her. Then the king's servants who attended him said, "Let ... the king appoint commissioners in all the provinces of his kingdom to gather all the beautiful young virgins to the harem in the citadel of Susa ... - "Esther" 2:1-3, Bible
After his meeting with Or-Tikva - the legendary Queen Vashti! - Esther had called a porter to show Crane where he was to sleep, while she remained in Or-Tikva's chamber to visit with her old friend.
Crane had then spent the night comfortably, in a private cubicle whose window was open to the cool night breezes, and he awoke refreshed and full of curiosity. Wooden screens separated him from his neighbours on either side and a woven curtain closed the fourth side.
Pushing aside the curtain, he stepped out into the silent corridor.
The porter who had shown him to his sleeping chamber on the previous evening had told him that this hall once housed the king's harem, which of course no longer existed. Crane had always found harems offensive; the women were usually treated worse than the palace livestock.
He wondered what had become of the hall's erstwhile occupants.
He strode back the way he'd come last night, searching for the porter or someone else to guide him. There was a certain anxiousness mixed with his curiosity. Though he was clothed, he felt underdressed without his sword, and though he had slept well, yesterday's encounters with the Queen had left him off balance.
Crane was not used to feeling underdressed or off balance.
At the end of the corridor was an open archway which led to a courtyard. In the low light of the half-risen sun an awesome sight met Crane's eyes: row upon row of women, in every shape and size, but all standing strong and at ease and all dressed as the Queen had been, in men's trousers and tunics, barefoot, with scarves wrapped around their heads. There were quite a few grey heads among them, though these older women seemed as straight and lithe as those whose hair was still black.
At the front of their ranks, facing them, stood a very young woman with a long black braid and a very old man who leaned upon a great carved walking stick.
As Crane watched, the old man seemed to say some words - Crane was too far distant to make out their meaning - and the young woman lifted her arms gracefully, made a half-turn and shifted her weight onto her left foot. The rows of women executed the same move.
A series of such movements followed, some slow, some fast; some movements clearly drew the women's bodies into defensive stances while some were more outwardly aggressive.
Crane felt the gathering power of the display stir something deep within his breast. He had no doubt that he was witnessing the morning exercises of the Queen's Own Guard.
"Beautiful, aren't they," said a musical female voice at his side.
"Lady Or-Tikva, forgive me," he said, bowing. "I did not hear your approach. Yes, they are indeed fearsomely beautiful. Fearsome to their enemies, in particular, I trust."
"And every one came from a harem," Or-Tikva informed him with satisfaction.
Crane started in surprise. "But -"
"Yes, of course, only the eldest were here when Susa had its own harem; the younger ones are refugees from other citadels. Some come from far, far away - you can see among them the faces of many distant lands."
"And they are all trained to fight?"
"They are all given martial training, yes, for we find that the training serves any woman well - particularly when her self-esteem has been so sorely compromised. But only those suited for the Guard are invited to join it. Those who wish other work are accommodated.
"We find that every one of these women has something to contribute, though she may not see it herself at first. But come, you must be hungry, and I have not yet breakfasted myself. Let us make our way to the banquet hall. On the way there I will show you another beautiful sight, if you do not mind going a little bit out of the way."
Or-Tikva led Crane along a path through a dense grove of palm trees. In a few minutes he heard the laughter of children, like a flock of birds calling out in joy, and then they came to a clearing. She put a gentle hand on his arm, and they stood in the shade of a palm tree and watched.
He had not realized before how tall she was - she came nearly to his shoulder, an unusual stature for a woman as Crane was a seven-foot giant.
"What do you see?" she asked softly.
"The guards are well-hidden but alert. The children seem happy and full of energy. But - are they all girls?"
"They, too, are refugees," she answered.
"They are children of the harem slaves?"
Or-Tikva laughed bitterly. "Children they are - some as young as six years old - but they do not know their mothers. They were rescued from citadels where the men use the most vulnerable - these babies - to prove their 'manhood'."
"These - these small doves - were harem slaves?"
Her hand tightened on his arm; Crane's stomach roiled and his eyes stung in a way that was most unfamiliar to him.
"I have lost my appetite for breakfast," he growled.
"That is good," Or-Tikva assured him. "The Queen will be pleased. And then she will give you wholesome food and drink to restore you, for there is much work to be done."
YOU ARE READING
Once upon a time there was a warrior queen who loved peace ... Mild-mannered writer Samuel J. Burnside is working on his latest adventure story, set in ancient Susa, where Queen Esther is teaching former harem slaves how to fight! But can Sam's new...