Oliver allowed himself to relax and took a deep breath. He understand what had just happened, or how he was expected to bring an end to an evil, but he figured that it had something to do with stopping the mercenaries. The old woman released his hand and began walking back towards the cliff path. One guard, the one who had threatened Oliver, ran ahead of her and began to jog up the path.
The younger woman glanced back at Oliver and said, “We will speak more later.” She turned and followed the old woman, taking her arm to help her up the steep switchback path to the top of the cliff.
One of the remaining guards slung his rifle under his robe and enveloped Oliver’s right hand in a double-handed handshake. “I am Zaid Ahmad, chief guardian of the Elder,” he said in Arabic.
“Oliver Lucas. Photographer and international trouble-maker.”
Zaid did not smile, but something in the set of his shoulders and glint of his eyes gave Oliver the feeling that he got the joke and approved.
“Take your bag and follow us. You will forgive me for keeping your gun in my possession until you depart from our company.”
“Understandable. Can I bring my bag with me?” Oliver said, nodding towards his backpack laying nearby.
“We will carry it for you.”
They marched up the narrow path. Zaid walked in the front with Oliver behind him and the still unnamed guard taking up the rear. It didn’t take long for them to catch up with the old woman and her young assistant, who introduced herself to Oliver as Hadiya.
“You speak English very well, Hadiya,” Oliver commented between panting breaths as they marched up the steep incline.
“Thank you. I participated in a student exchange program in New York for two years while I attended university.”
“What did you study?”
“The closest equivalent in English would be something like Women’s Rights in International Relations.”
“That’s very modern.”
Hadiya shot Oliver a sharp look. Her dark eyes cut into him and he had the distinct impression that he had offended her.
“I might be from a small village, but we aren’t some backwards tribe scrabbling in the dust of your modern empire, you know. We have electricity. We have medicine. I was encouraged by my parents to attend university so I could get a bigger picture of the world. I did well there, then returned to the village out of respect for my family’s honor and my grandmother’s beliefs.”
“I didn’t mean to offend you.”
“Certainly, Hadiya. All I meant was that your choice of major reflects an interest in society that many people lack, no matter where they come from.”
She looked away from Oliver as she helped the old woman, who Oliver now assumed to be Hadiya’s grandmother, keep her balance on the steep path.
After a while she said, “I apologize for snapping at you. My grandmother appears to trust you, so I will try to do the same.”