Saturday, December 8, 2018

A historical short fiction to chill a winter's day

Well, I’m back. Looking over this blog, I see it’s been a month to the day since I last posted, a month spent dealing with the terminal illness of my sister, who lived in another country. (Those who follow me on Facebook have seen some indications of that tragic episode.) Now trying to dig myself out of the morass of details that follow, I’m posting an old short story that matches my mood. Originally published October 3, 2010, in, it’s based on characters in a historical novel work in progress, The Necklace of the Dove


Omar looked up as he entered the marketplace of al-Shara, squinting against the late winter sky at the inscription overhead. The town clinging to the banks of the great river was little more than a village, but the pillars surrounding its marketplace supported a roof – only slightly dilapidated – that formed a sheltered arcade, a comfortable place to exchange gossip and merchandise, human or otherwise.
The carved inscription, Omar had heard, honored the caliph who had the arcade built when Syria was a land of importance, before successor caliphs pulled back to Baghdad. But wind and sand, summer sun and winter rain, and the stones flung by generations of small boys had nearly effaced the inscription.
And in any case, he could not have read the inscription. He was a slave.
A shimmer obscured Omar’s sight, the aura that presaged true seeing. As he tried to shrug off his uneasiness, a child’s scream resounded within the marketplace, followed by the thudding footfalls of men running in the warren of alleys. Omar leaned against a pillar, out of the path of any fleeing thief.
A man – not young but not as old as Omar -- raced past. He held a scarecrow of a small girl against his shoulder. The lightning streak of a scar ran down one cheek and into his beard, the scar that had given the man his nickname – the Frank, al-Mastoub – the slashed one. Two pursuers panted at his back – the guards of the slave dealer al-Darda, their weapons drawn.
Al-Mastoub spun around, laying the child over his left shoulder to free a hand. His old scimitar leaped from its scabbard with a hiss. Almost too fast for Omar’s eyes to follow, the blade slashed across the attacker’s arm, ripping the man’s sleeve. The dirty wool bloomed red. With a groan, the guard dropped his weapon into the dust.
A crowd of the small boys and dogs appeared, in the manner of crowds. They encircled the fighters, shouting and barking. Omar stepped out of the pillar’s shadow and drew his own scimitar, whirling it as he advanced. At the sound of steel slicing the air, al-Mastoub glanced over his shoulder for a startled instant.
The wounded attacker had fled, unmindful of the shower of flung jeers and pebbles from the onlookers.  But the second grabbed the girl’s bare foot, sneering to see his prey trapped. The Frank tried futilely to pull the child free as the attacker held his blade’s edge, not against the Frank, but across the child’s ankle. She screamed again in incoherent terror.
The Frank dropped his weapon as the guard yanked the child from her protector’s grasp and sheathed his blade.
“Let her go,” Omar said from behind the guard’s back, unnoticed during the struggle. The tip of his scimitar stroked the man’s spine.
Al-Darda’s man dropped his hand to his weapon again. Omar reversed his scimitar and struck with the hilt at the man’s wrist, snapping the bone. With a yelled curse, the man dropped the girl and followed his comrade in flight.
Omar leaned on his weapon, panting, until the sick dizziness that plagued him nowadays after exertion subsided, watching as the crowd dispersed.
Al-Mastoub picked the child up again before looking to Omar. “Thanks,” he said.
Omar looked the child over. Skin and bones, she was, with tear-cut runnels down her filthy face. But it was her eyes – translucent as water – that most troubled him. The first time Omar had seen such eyes, he thought the woman in whose face they were set was blind. Even al-Mastoub’s were not so pale.
“She reminded me of Sibylla.” There was a trace of wistfulness in the Frank’s voice.
Far to the west, beyond the two rivers, a woman leaned from a window in the highest tower of the prince’s palace in Antioch -- Sibylla, the prince’s concubine. She observed the aspect of the heavens, sniffing the salt smell of the sea, then clanged the shutters closed over the windows. Across them, her serving women drew curtains of heavy silk whose color changed from green to blue and back again as they rippled in the drafts. Panels of the same silk enclosed the room.
image: pixabay
The draperies hushed the moaning of wind from the sea at the center of the world, the sea whose traffic had made the Frankish princedom of Antioch rich. A heavy gloom fell over the chamber. So silently did the servants move, lighting honey-scented wax tapers, that the fall of a tinderbox onto the carpeted floor thudded like the tread of armed men.
At a command from Sibylla, the women withdrew.
She listened as their whispers and shuffling steps faded, and rose from her high-backed chair, locking the chamber door and dropping a curtain over it. Taking a candle from its sconce, she lifted one of the silk panels and unlocked a door, so closely fitted into the substance of the chamber wall that only one who knew where to look could find it, and stooped to enter.
Within was a room no bigger than a closet, holding a stool and a table draped in black samite that fell in shrouding folds to the floor. She set her candle on the table and lifted the drape to peer into the mirror it had concealed.
Her waiting women called her “princess” to her face. But between the anathema laid on Prince Bohemund, who had deserted his wife for Sibylla’s sake, and the rumors of her sorcery, no priest could be found to marry her to the prince. Behind her back, her women gave her other names. And sometimes, as today, when the whispers grew too loud to ignore, she retreated to her room and sat in secret. Then the women of her household trembled.
And at times like that – at times like this – the knowledge that her rival still lived, even in faraway al-Shara, still enjoyed herself with the man Sibylla desired – for the prince, in spite of his wealth and power did not hold that place in her heart – ate like acid into her soul.
She opened a small chest on the table and withdrew a curl of brown hair, a flagon of wine, and a rock crystal chalice, stained at the rim beyond all cleansing.
She half-filled the cup with wine. Untwining a single hair from the curl of the child she had sold to the slave trader and tipping the candle, she burned the hair to a filament of ash that dropped into the wine. She pulled off her glove of violet silk, drew a bodkin, and stabbed one of her pale fingers, then squeezed the drops of blood into the cup, stirring in ergot and datura, with other ingredients secret and deadly.
Contemplating the chalice, she raised it to her lips.