Yadin’s home was in the mountains south of Shamar, as the royal city was called then, in a fertile valley near the Belen road. What normally took him a day and a half took us twice that.
That first evening, the road out of the city was crowded with refugees. The lot of us moved with a singular purpose, but necessarily slowly simply because of the vast numbers. We had little fear that William’s men would pursue the throng; they had come from the West and we were headed south, and it was generally understood that he had wanted the city for its strategic location. Rome had been wanting to regain a foothold in the region, and what better way than to capture the royal city, the last remaining stronghold of the Khazars, which stood between Rome and its path eastward.
No, Rome wasn’t interested in the common people just yet. And with Adina and the decoy child in place, we were assured of anonymous safety for a time.
Indeed, late that night, word came to us by way of a runner — one of several young men who had volunteered to keep the travelers informed — that William had taken the bait, announcing the deaths of the King (which some in our train had witnessed first hand) and Queen (rumored, and the rumors were colorful) and the child Queen Malka who had reigned over a dying dynasty for less than a day. Several travelers around us clucked in sorrow.
I was a little surprised to hear whispers and muttered comments as we went on, even after that news. Some said they heard that the child queen had comported herself admirably, and others that she had given up the city and the kingdom too easily, taking the cowardly way out.
A woman near us, on hearing the second, spoke up. “Shame on you for saying so! A child that young, and just lost her parents. Could you have done better?”
“Well, if it had been me —”
“Oh be quiet. You weren’t there, you pipsqueak, and you’ve no idea what you’d have done. Just as likely pissed yourself as anything else, and she bought us enough time to get safely away…”
The argument faded as the two drew past us, and I nearly laughed out loud. Bless that woman for her sense and bluntness. In a day filled with dark strategies, her frank language and her defense of the child queen — of me — lifted my spirits for a moment.
…only to come crashing down in the next breath as the memory of that poor child, my decoy, flashed before my eyes. She didn’t get safely away, nor her mother.
The convoy slowly made its way south, gradually shedding citizens who veered off to the west for fishing villages or east into the mountains. We traveled fairly late into the night, finally stopping about halfway to Iskenderun to rest the horses and ourselves. I had dozed fitfully during the journey, jarring awake at sudden bumps or noises, or at the horror of my own haunted dreams.
I had been dozing again when we stopped, feeling the texture of the ground under the cart’s wheels change as we left the road. I sat up and looked around. Some travelers continue on, and some followed our example and were pulling off to the left with us into a meadow of sorts — land, I think, that had not been cultivated that season.
Daniel and Yadin unhitched the horses and very carefully tended them, brushing and watering and feeding them — those bags of grain hadn’t only been to disguise our cargo and the manner of our parting — then hobbling them under a nearby scrub cedar, allowing them enough slack to wander and find grass and volunteer grains but not so much that they would stray far from our little encampment. Despite our awareness that this mass of was of a single mind to find homes away from the city, Yadin and Daniel knew that marauders would take advantage of the confusion.
Other families — for such we were now — camped nearby, caring for and hobbling their own mounts, or settling in without them, starting small fires and spreading blankets on the ground under the stars.
Bit by bit the night lit up with the cooking fires, the gentle music of voices drifting in and out of our awareness, the various aromas wafting around us.
My mother and Maryam meanwhile unwrapped provisions. Day old bread, still fairly soft, some cheese and — bless them! — some of the stew salvaged from the previous night’s meal. It wouldn’t be edible after tomorrow’s heat, for although it was early spring the days were already warm.
So tonight we would eat well, tomorrow morning finishing the stew and relying on cured meats, hard bread, cheeses and what we might find in towns during our journey — and considering the sheer volume of travelers, little enough chance of that — for the remainder of our travels.
I stood to the side, rather helplessly looking on as my elders carried out their tasks. Still in a bit of shock, I found myself wishing to avoid my mother, so I wandered to where Daniel and Yadin were managing our horses.
Daniel I knew very little, other than our very brief — and rude on my part — interactions at the royal stables. But as I silently watched the two men working together, it gradually occurred to me that they had a kind of rhythm together, the kind that can only come from the familiarity of long acquaintance. I wondered a little at this, for of course I had scarce knowledge of Yadin’s comings and goings at the palace beyond his audiences with my father and his counselors, and even less of Daniel’s.
As I listened to them speak quietly together, I thought I could hear a similarity in their speech, their accents and manner bearing a strong resemblance to one another. I realized they must have similar origins.
Shyly I spoke, “Do you know each other, then, outside the palace?”
Yadin looked up, startled — he seemed to have forgotten my presence for the moments he and Daniel worked quietly together.
“I’m sorry,” I stammered, “I’ll just stay over—”
“No, Majesty — child —” he corrected himself, “please stay. Forgive me. My mind has lost focus this night, it seems.”
“General Yadin, let us agree that today we are all a bit… off. It’s only that you two sound so much alike.”
Yadin smiled broadly — the first time I think I had ever seen a smile from him, I thought wonderingly. “Yes, child! You are very observant. Daniel is my cousin — the son of my mother’s sister. Born the same week. We have been friends since we were old enough to be plopped in the yard together.”
Daniel chuckled. And of course now I could see the likeness as well as hear it — their long chins and dark, deep-set eyes marking them as family.
“I never knew. But of course, I was too royal to ask. Forgive me, both of you.” I took a deep breath. “Let us begin anew. I am Shoshana, daughter of the recently dead… the recently dead…” I looked to Yadin for a cue.
“…Al-Noor, my second-in-command, who did in fact die in battle this day.” His face showed his grief for a moment. “He had neither wife nor child, but nobody will know that where we are going.” He sighed. “So many deaths this day…”
My throat closed in sorrow, and I felt my knees weaken for a moment. A single sob escaped me.
Daniel dropped his brush and quickly stepped to my side, picking me up and depositing me back in the cart.
“Oh, child. For all that you are our queen,” he said quietly, “you have seen far too much for your young years.” He gently stroked my head. His gentle care was overwhelming, and I had done nothing to earn it. Quite the opposite in fact. And now, on the same day I lost my father, who was not the best example even on his best day, I seem to have gained two of the kindest uncles one could possibly hope for. I could hardly believe my good fortune in this.
“Daniel, I was horrible to you. I am so sorry. I have been terribly spoiled and I do not deserve your kindness. I am so sorry,” I said again.
“Shh, child, all is well. As you say, today we begin anew.”
Maryam had moved near me as Daniel spoke, concern etching her features. “Is she unwell?”
“Only overwhelmed, I think, lady.”
I sat up, ashamed. “You are all working and being so kind to me, and I’m wallowing. Give me something constructive to do.”
My mother looked up sharply from where she was stoking up the beginnings of our cooking fire. “Yes. Gather more wood for the fire. It must be dry, not still green. You know how to look for that?”
Maryam frowned, and took a breath to object. I placed a hand on her arm. “No, dear Maryam, she is right. I must become accustomed to this new life.”
“I will have a word with her about her tone, dear one. She is still merely a servant.”
At that, I did laugh out loud, confusing my poor nurse. “Dear, sweet Maryam, how I love you. Yes, please do speak with her. I shall be very curious to hear her response. But I have seen enough of her to know that it will make not a whit of difference.”