Of the nurses who stayed, one was known and dear to me — Maryam — one I vaguely knew — Adina — and one I didn’t recognize at all. That happened a lot. Nurses came and went and, except for Maryam, I hardly even looked at them. So it was nothing remarkable that Bina was unknown to me. I thought she was so new to court life that she simply hadn’t yet tired of my childish antics.
Despite my father’s lack of leadership and my mother’s more ascetic approach to court life, I had managed to receive an excellent education up to that point. Tutors had been imported from the great courts of Persia, and I soaked up their knowledge; the Greeks with their logic and the Goliards with their music; truly I was a fortunate child, and more fortunate still that these subjects had been of such interest to me, for of course they served me very well in adulthood.
Too, my mother had managed to impress upon my young mind the importance of statecraft — of hearing all sides and remaining balanced against impassioned arguments. She had frequently snuck me into side alcoves to listen in on important discussions between various poobahs, learning about politics from behind veils, hiding behind the obscurity of childhood and an unconsidered gender.
I think she resented her marriage into a kingdom that valued her only as a bargaining chip in the game of alliances. It seems as though she herself had been truly educated in wise rule, but then married into a country that thoroughly ignored her worth.
All this is to say that in that final day of my family’s dynasty, I managed to keep my head, despite my youth and confusion. With my dear Maryam at my side and my other two nurses making certain I was fed and otherwise cared for, I received news of William’s advance through the city over the next several hours. It was clear, even to my child’s mind, that we were lost.
As the day stretched on, I made a decision. With my father’s best general in irons, and my parents lost to me forever, I accepted defeat.
I also chose a course that history has questioned, but that I believe saved many lives.
“Go home.” I interrupted General Yadin’s report.
“We are done for, and you know it. William has won, and I have not the stomach for further casualty reports. You are relieved of duty, as are all your men. Remove your armor, return to your homes safely, and live long lives well away from this place.
“Send a messenger to William that we surrender.” But although there would be no resistance from us any more, there would also be nobody to meet him when he took the palace.
“Go. Take your families and what possessions you can discreetly carry, open the coffers and live. LIVE!”
“Majesty!” I had offended his sense of honor, I’m sure, by suggesting this. No doubt he thought it was the coward’s way out.
“How many have died this day?” I asked him.
“We have not been able to count yet—”
“How many?” I shouted. “Guess if you must.”
“Hundreds. Perhaps thousands.”
“And how many more would die defending us?”
“Many more—your subjects are loyal…” he finished lamely, knowing that wasn’t entirely true any more.
“And what chance have we of success?” I watched his face carefully as he calculated, and honor battled expediency in his mind. He knew where I was going with this.
“Very little, Majesty.” He was silent a moment, considering. I saw his face change as he decided. “None, in fact, Your Majesty,” he finally admitted.
“Go home, General Yadin,” I repeated.
“But, Majesty, what of you?”
It was a good question, and one I hadn’t quite thought through. I closed my eyes for a moment, listening to the sounds of unrest coming closer.
“Have you children, General?”
“Yes, Majesty, five. Two daughters and three sons.”
Slowly I asked as a plan began to take shape: “After all, who would notice another female in your midst? Could your house make use of another daughter?… and perhaps some nurses, or maids, or staff of some sort to care for your children and help in the household? Perhaps I would be the daughter of a deceased fellow soldier…” For we both knew that while daughters were of little value in this country, honor among men was prized.
Poor Yadin gasped. I had shocked him again.
I heard Maryam quietly exclaim, “Ah!” behind me. Yes. She understood. I heard her quietly move away to confer with the other two nurses. They had already begun preparing for some sort of change, but they hadn’t known what nature that change would take until this moment, and now they had a focus.
“General Yadin,” I continued, “I am trusting you with my life, if you will have me, and in exchange I will be your humble daughter, doing anything that needs to be done as an ordinary member of an ordinary household.” I thought for a moment.
“You must retire and be willing to live as quiet a life as possible hereafter.
“Maryam! A moment, please.” She returned to my side. “Know you where the key to my father’s coffers is this day?”
“Yes, Majesty — the Grand Seneschal kept it, but he is long gone and left the key with one of the head housemen.”
“Maryam, will you go with the General to retrieve the key, and see that he is given what he needs to strike this bargain?”
Yadin drew himself proudly upright, ready to protest. I really had given him no choice, but his objection was not what I had expected: “Majesty, I need no reward for your protection—”
“Nonsense,” I interrupted bluntly. “You must take what gold will sustain your family and accommodate the additional burden of our arrival. If not a reward, then consider it as your retirement pension.”
His mouth clapped shut and he nodded once, quickly seeing the practicality of this. He followed Maryam.
He knew I was right, and wasn’t that strange? I suppose I inherited my mother’s pragmatism, and certainly I had paid attention to her lessons; it was nevertheless such an odd feeling to be taken seriously, even for a moment. But glory and honor be damned—I wanted us to survive this, and not as William’s prisoners, even in a gilded cage. For surely he would have kept me on a very short leash and paraded me out on festival days as proof of his beneficence.
I heard a quiet, familiar voice behind me: “That was well played, Majesty. It seems you were paying attention. Shhhhh— no, don’t turn around just yet. Slowly, calmly. It is only I, your nurse. Bina.” She said this with particular emphasis.
Then I did turn, carefully, as though this were an ordinary conversation—never mind that this was far from an ordinary day—for there were still other dignitaries fluttering nearby, and I understood that my mother wished to remain hidden, for reasons I did not yet understand.
“So, it’s been you all along? Hiding among the nurses as Bina?”
“No, I sent Bina home today as you are sending your troops home. This seemed the safest way. Nobody pays attention to the women, least of all the nurses.”
“Oh, but you’re alive!” Tears pricked my eyes, and suddenly I felt a kind of relieved conviction that perhaps we would survive this after all.
“But child, I am dead and best to remain that way. They would surely kill me if they found me, or keep me as their prisoner.” Her words uncannily echoed my own thoughts, and I nodded.
I quickly wiped my eyes. None of my observers would think anything of it, I was sure. I had just lost my family, after all.
That would take some getting used to. “Bina, then: what shall we do?”
“Just as you have said—Yadin’s house will absorb us and we will learn to live as commoners.”
“But you’re a—”
“Don’t say it. Yes, I was raised in palaces,” she continued quietly, “but my father’s was smaller, and even the royalty there worked at ordinary tasks alongside affairs of state. I have some skill at spinning and weaving, not just delicate needlework. I will teach you.
“Now hear me,” she whispered fiercely, “you are the Queen, my child, and no matter what happens, you must keep this in your heart.” Suddenly I understood that indeed I was the queen, for while she had married into this kingdom, I was born to it. “While there will yet be times when you will need to hide it, and I know you understand this, some day you will be able to reveal yourself as Queen Malka and nobody will touch you. They won’t dare.
“But that is many years away, I think, and we have difficult times ahead.”
I shivered, for her words had the feel of prophecy to them. And in a day already burdened with constant bad news, it was almost too much. My 11-year-old mind had clutched at my mother’s appearance, convinced that her presence alone would somehow fix everything. Couldn’t she negotiate the terms of our surrender to William? But even I knew that he took women even less seriously than my father’s people had. So of course she was right. My life — our lives — would never again be the same spoiled existence.
My mind returned to the conversation with Yadin moments before, and I made another decision.
“Bina—“ I hesitated only a little on the name “—would you kindly follow Maryam and the General, and bring the key back when they return?”
I could almost feel her smile grimly behind me. She bowed silently before going through the same door through which Yadin and Maryam had passed.
Another messenger entered from the opposite door, pausing to bow deeply before approaching the throne.
“I think we are beyond ceremony now, yes? What news?”
“Yes, Majesty. We have managed to hold them down in the market square for a time, Majesty, but we are badly outnumbered and cannot last much longer.”
“How long do you think before they break through?”
“Another hour, two at the most. Possibly less.” It wasn’t much time, but it might be enough.
“Go back and tell them this: hold the square for an hour if you can do so without losing too many more lives. Then lay down your arms. We are defeated.”
The messenger bowed and left without another word.
There was a momentary lull, so I looked around. The only people still present in the audience room were a few terrified courtiers and some household attendants.
“My people,” I spoke a little more officially, to get their attention. “My people, we are done, our dynasty ended. Such of you who have means to escape have our leave to do so. We will be opening the royal coffers soon. You will take what you can discreetly carry and leave with our blessing. Please do not fight over it — the heavens know that we have had enough of fighting and blood this day, and there will be plenty to set you up if you can get it and yourselves safely away.”
Just then General Yadin returned with Maryam and my mother — no, Bina — who now had the key to the coffers. I held out my hand for it, and addressed General Yadin.
“You have all you need, then?”
Maryam spoke up. “He would have taken much less, but I know your mind, Little Rabbit, and insisted he take more.” She smiled for a moment.
“Yadin, know this: if you are doing battle with your sense of duty, remember that you are putting yourself and your family at great risk. A few coins are the very least we could or should be doing. I’d give you this very palace if I could.”
His stern face softened. My trust for him was complete in that moment.
I turned to the remaining courtiers, who had remained at some distance.
“Come closer, all of you. We are friends now, not queen and court. If you have heard any of my conversation with General Yadin—“ they all shook their heads, and indeed they had held themselves at too far of a remove to hear the conversation “—no? Good. It never happened. You must leave here as though you never heard another word except that we are to surrender.” I heard soft moans of dismay from the little group.
“Yes. Our forces are surrendering to William in an hour or less. That is how much time you have to get away from here.”
I tossed the key to a startled courtier — my father’s secretary, as it happened.
“Go now. Leave quietly, through the kitchens, though the garden gates, anything but the main gates. Hide yourselves in cloaks and dirt; do what it takes to retreat safely to your own lands. More trouble will find you there, no doubt, but less there, I think, than if you’re caught here. Go, and live long and happy lives.”
And that left only us.
Yadin and the three women and I looked dumbly around for a moment, then my mother quietly said, “We have two small trunks from the treasury, now stowed on one of the kitchen wagons, with the groom Daniel holding two horses for us. Come let us get you changed into plainer attire, Majesty—”
“You should probably stop calling me that… Bina.”
She nearly chuckled. “Yes, of course. Come, then, let’s take us from here.”
The next half hour went quickly as Maryam helped me change into one of my oldest, shabbiest nursery frocks, and my mother gathered a few helpful items from her bedchamber and my own.
I looked longingly at the fabulous mechanical toys my father had had made for me over the years, but knew I had to leave them. They were far too fine for where we were going, and far too obvious a marker pointing to me, or at least to the royal family.
Adina had been tasked with gathering food that would travel well—cheeses, breads, cured meats and the like. I had asked her if she had a home to which she could return, and her face grew even more sad.
“No, lady, I have none and would go with you. I promise I will be useful. I can cook, a little, and can help with the General’s other children.” I realized vaguely that I had no idea how old Yadin’s other children were, and hoped my presence there would not upset their lives too much. I didn’t know anything about Adina, but she had been patient enough with me, if a little on the simple side. I peered intently into her face for a moment.
“You know what we’re about. I can no longer be your Majesty, or Highness, or even Lady, but merely another child of a landsman’s house. You must help me blend in.” I leaned in, “and you must never breathe a word of this to anyone, on pain not only of my death, but that of dear brave Yadin and his family. And probably yours. You understand?”
She looked terrified. “Of course, my lady — I mean — oh, what shall I call you?”
She had a point. I could no longer be Malka, and “Little Rabbit” was not a name I would choose to follow me into adulthood. I looked around helplessly for a moment, until my eyes fell on a spray of roses, a few petals dropping on the table around it.
“Shoshana. Call me Shoshana.” [The Hebrew word for “rose”]
“Shoshana. That’s pretty.” Adina nodded, her eyes still wide as saucers. But she went about her work, and if her hands shook a little, she was nevertheless efficient.
Finally it was time. General Yadin knocked gently at the doorframe, then entered, saying, “All is prepared. We must leave now. The invader approaches, and the streets are in a bit of a panic. If we delay any longer we will be caught in it.”
So we hurried across the palace to where Daniel still held horses and wagon at the kitchen courtyard. We could hear the frightened crowd outside the gate. Yadin looked grim. I hoped we weren’t too late.
Yadin bundled us into the cart among bags of flour that hid the trunks and our meager possessions. Daniel, who would also travel with us to care for the horses, led us to the gate. He and Yadin opened the massive doors just wide enough to let us through. The crowd on the other side was noisy and nervous, but moving purposefully away from the battle. They did not yet feel dangerous.
Daniel and Yadin jumped up to the front of the wagon, and Yadin took the reins to direct the horses into the crowd, taking care to avoid striking the refugees flowing out around us. It seemed we would make it. I didn’t quite heave a sigh of relief, for we were far from safe yet, but I could see the southern gates of the city from our perch, and William’s troops were not blocking our escape.
Suddenly there was a commotion behind us, between our cart and the kitchen gate we had just left. I heard a horse neigh angrily — not one of ours — and then a woman’s brief panicked scream.
“Yadin! Stop the cart!” I cried. “We must help her!”
“Child, we cannot, or we may lose our last chance of a safe exit.”
I looked miserably at my mother, whose face was maddeningly impassive.
“You can’t save them all,” she said simply.
What followed is a bit of a blur. I remember scrambling to jump off the cart, all three of the women yelling at me to stop, and Adina and my mother tumbling out to try to halt my insane mission.
I raced back to where I’d heard the horse — now turned and gone on its way — and found the woman crumpled on the ground, holding a bloody bundle in her arms. I nearly fell over her in my haste, and saw as I did that the bundle was a child, about my height, whose skull and face had been crushed by the panicked horse. If I had had any food left in my stomach, it would have forced its way back out and onto the pavement beside her.
As it was, I stumbled to my knees beside the mother’s still form. I couldn’t tell if she yet lived. My own mother stepped up behind me.
“Are they dead?” she asked shortly.
“I can’t tell about the mother, but the child —“ it was a girl, and the realization that she was around my age made me nearly retch again. My mother knelt quickly and picked up the child as I watched in disbelief.
“Leave the woman. She is certainly dead, or will be soon.”
“What are you doing? So is the girl!”
She ignored me and held the gruesome burden out to Adina. “Take her back inside to Malka’s chamber, and weep over her as though your life depended on it — for surely it does.”
Adina looked as though she would faint, and didn’t move for a moment. Mother slapped her sharply and pushed her in the direction of the gate. The shock of the slap woke Adina.
“The child Queen is dead along with her family. Do you understand, girl? The family are all dead now!”
I finally grasped what she was about and my stomach heaved a third time. My mother grabbed my wrist and dragged me back to the cart as Adina rushed back toward the still-open gate. Maryam reached down to pull me back in, and my mother clambered in after me.
“Go!” she shouted to Yadin.
He looked questioningly at me. He took his orders from me now.
“Adina?” he asked.
“…is staying behind,” I finished. “That was the child Queen who died on the street, and Adina has taken her inside to mourn her. This dynasty is no more.” I was weeping openly now, as the horror of the day came crashing down around my head.
Yadin nodded grimly in understanding, and chucked the horses to move on.
I couldn’t look at my mother. The horror of what she had done — so cold and calculating — shocked and repelled me. Maryam silently opened her arms and I crawled into her lap as a much younger child might, and sobbed against her shoulder.
They wouldn’t pursue me this way. I understood that my mother had saved my life with this act, but — my stomach heaved yet again — at what cost? I had always been a little intimidated by her sternness, though she was never unkind. But now she terrified me.
I found myself wishing I knew how to pray, but I didn’t know the words.
So I wept.
I didn’t see when we passed through the southern gate, but after a while I noticed that the quality of the sounds around us had changed. The horses’ hooves no longer clattered on stone, but thudded softly on hard packed dirt.
We were free.