Rachel Winslow stared up at the ceiling for hours before she resolutely turned over. The bed creaked as she fumbled the blanket over her shoulders. Her eyes were gritty, her almost healed hands throbbed in time with her pulse, and she swallowed the bitter aftertaste of hot sand.
If only she could get some sleep. Her injuries needed to mend or she couldn't go forward with Rob's rescue. The last of her family, he meant the world to her. Fatigue blurred the edges of her resolve to make plans. Too many nights her memories had kept her from healing rest. She struggled to keep her eyes open, the horror at bay...
...Rachel smiled as she pushed back the flowing sleeves of her djebbella to accept a steaming mug from Abdul, the camp cook. He knew how much she savored her first sip of morning coffee and always had one ready at the crack of dawn. She blew into the hot liquid as she watched her local nurse flirt with a tall Arab. The distinctive Sudan aroma of spice and desert dust rose with the sun to fill her lungs. Despite her vague unease, today was another ordinary day.
Her chilled fingers leached warmth from the heavy clay cup. Even after two years with her brother's mobile medical unit, the Sudan's night cold surprised her. Although light had barely broken over the horizon a medley of dialects from the rousing natives swelled. The familiar chaos of families breaking camp, arriving with their loved ones for treatment, arguing over fuel, water and space had her gulping down the last mouthful of her now cold coffee.
Another seemingly endless row of patients waited in front of the main medical tent for her to make rounds. It wasn't pride, but satisfaction that recognized her medical skill was the only thing standing between life and crippling disease for many of them. She had always wanted to be a doctor. Practicing medicine wasn't a career but her entire life. She was needed in this drought-stricken area in a way she had never been needed before. In this desolate area, her skillful hands were often the only barrier between life and death. She handed her cup to the cook with a smile of thanks, then glanced toward her waiting patients.
A fiery blast engulfed the canvas structure. Abdul shouted something, but her ringing ears distorted the words beyond understanding. Debris peppered her face and she squinted in pain. The fierce explosion reeled the crowd back before the panicked relatives surged forward like sand falling down the side of a dune.
Across the small fire, the Bedouin's face contorted in an evil mask. With a howl of rage, he slapped the white-clad nurse savagely across the face then slit her throat. The crowd pushed between Rachel and them before she could cry out. He shook his upraised fist at her, the clenched dagger scattering drops of blood. Uttering an ululating cry, the assassin raced to meet an advancing horseman leading a saddled mount.
Screams shrilled over the roar of the flames.
"Rob," Rachel whispered. Her gut clenched with fear until she almost vomited the coffee. They'd been warned, but she'd been smug in her belief that they'd be safe because they were right. Her patients were inside the burning tent: the wounded boy, several pregnant women, and sick children who huddled under their blankets for comfort.
And Rob. A sob choked in her throat. She had to get them out.
"Rob. Rob. Rob." Her voice escalated with each cry until she thought God Himself must hear her pleas.
Spiking flames tore through the canvas like spears cutting her dreams to shreds.
Horses neighed with fear as they raced too close to the rapidly expanding fire.
"Rob," Rachel screamed again. Fluttering robes, shrieking mouths, swirling smoke had her floundering for balance as she fought her way through the sweating, struggling bodies. Natives streamed from their makeshift tents. Robed Bedouins mixed with half-naked tribesmen to rescue their own. Unable to breathe, unable to move fast enough, she pummeled and punched at the soot-stained bodies blocking her way.
Darting past the last flapping robe, her hands caught at the blackening canvas wall. Fabric burst into flame as she frantically tore handfuls aside. The screaming continued, whether hers or theirs she could no longer tell. She had to reach Rob, had to save him. Her nostrils stung with the acrid stench of burning flesh. She felt her eyebrows and hair smolder and char.
A long arm wrapped around her waist before pulling her back against a sweaty chest. Rachel screamed and kicked to get free as the canvas structure collapsed with a loud whoosh.
"Too late, Mama Doc," her unknown rescuer said before he gently placed her on her feet. She swayed for a moment, unable to understand how the disaster had happened so quickly. Heavy as death, the stench of smoke and ashes filled her panting lungs. Rachel stared at the burning heap of cloth and equipment. No more screams sounded.
Sobbing and coughing, she fell to her knees alongside the smoldering mess. Her heavy white robe was black with smoke. They were dead, all dead. No, not all. Not Rob. She'd know if his life had ended. In her heart, she'd know. When her hands refused to close into fists she realized both were burned and swollen beyond recognition.
Shock kept at bay the pain she knew would be excruciating. She wished the numbness kept her from being aware her damaged hands might never regain their skill. If she couldn't practice medicine, her life was over. She slowly lifted her head to stare at the place where Rob had worked. She had to find him. He was the only thing she had left. Her dry swallow was a harsh click of pain.
Everyone, everything else she had cherished, was gone...
She whimpered softly in protest. Rob needed her. She was the only one who believed he still lived. Her hands moved in supplication but the new dream, thick with apprehension rolled over her...
...The thick stench of fear and thick dust plugged her nostrils as she struggled to breathe. The dank night air weighed as heavy as packed sand on her shaking limbs...
...Sweat trickled between Rob's shoulder blades, soaking into the waistband of his filthy pants while he strained to reach the heavy bar across the thick planks of his cell's only exit. Trembling with shock and fatigue, he stubbornly pushed to his bloodied knees only to fall again.
If this debilitating pain would only stop, just for a moment, he could escape. Angry tears rained down his dirty cheeks and he finally admitted he lacked the strength. A thick sliver gouged into his arm when he slumped lower, sliding down the ancient wooden door. Enough light shone under the bottom from the corridor for him to see dark blood winding a narrow path through the layered grime caked on his forearm.
Another source of infection, he thought wearily. Perhaps he should be grateful the heavy darkness concealed the new damage. He knew too well the results of neglect and dirt on the kind of wounds he had sustained. Since the fighting started he'd performed amputations and watched patients die from similar damage. He shuddered at the thought of losing the use of his hands.
He must have passed out for a time. When he reluctantly opened his aching eyes, he lay sprawled on the cold floor, his bruised cheek pressed into the gritty surface. Loud footsteps resounded in the silence. A jeering laugh broke the night quiet and a desperate prayer welled from deep in his soul. Not again.
Please let them leave me alone, he pleaded.
He scrabbled at the packed dirt, but his fingers refused to close. The makeshift bandages barely protected his injured fingers and palms. He'd torn the knotted material from what was left of his shirttail after the first beating, but the clumsy bindings were inadequate in every way.
Someone pushed against the thick door, raising the heavy bar as Rob rolled frantically out of the way. His captors had no patience. His sore ribs still felt the imprint of their combat boots. When the door burst open harsh light from an oil-filled lantern flooded the tiny room. It illuminated his twisting figure. Blinking frantically, Rob couldn't clear his gritty eyes.
Big. Bulky. In flowing robes and voluminous cloak that concealed his identity and protected him from the bone-deep cold of the desert night, the guard loomed over him. His anonymity made his presence more threatening. With a loud hawking sound, the guard spit into the dirt next to Rob's lifted head then deliberately stepped on his bandaged fingers.
'Rachel,' Rob screamed.