Chapter 9

And just like that, we were once again packing in a hurry as we had when we left the palace. It was a strange, sad feeling of familiarity, tinged with something like despair. I wondered if we were doomed to repeat this cycle as long as I lived, or at least as long as Rome’s puppets occupied the region. A fleeting thought whispered across my mind, that perhaps it had been better to stay and fight for my people, and maybe die in the process. Just as quickly, I dismissed the notion. In dying alongside the remaining denizens of the palace, my death would have been useless. Stories had come to us from the marketplace, tales of wholesale slaughter: anyone they had found within the palace walls, whether nobility or servant, was killed without hesitation. No mercy, no imprisonment, no interrogations. Witnesses had seen William’s soldiers stacking bodies and burning them unceremoniously in the courtyard, like so much garbage.

No reports came to us of Adina’s fate, so we had assumed that she was killed along with the rest. I had been violently ill when I heard the tales, knowing that I’d had a hand in her death.

But Manal told us a different tale as we packed. Adina had been seen among William’s men living, if not comfortably, at least with familiarity amidst them. And she was with a detachment that had been seen in Iskenderun asking questions about Yadin and his return home.

And they had been asking about me.

It was a possibility I’d never even considered, that Adina would simply turn on us to secure her own freedom. I’m certain now that it had been more nuanced than her blithely offering up information. It’s likely they pried or scared it out of her, offering her little choice. But she had turned it to her advantage in the process, apparently leveraging her knowledge into a role as camp follower.

To some extent, I couldn’t blame her. We had left her to the wolves, and while my mother had engineered it, I was complicit. Part of me was glad she had survived, and part of me was appalled and furious — and terrified — at what her betrayal would cost us.

I would lose my new family — bad enough, that — but far worse in my mind was what this would to do Yadin and his family. The orchards were forfeit, no doubt, and if Yadin or any of the family stayed behind, so were their lives.

There was no way to pack a lifetime into a few carts and wagons, not in the time we had. But this time we had many more hands, more wagons, and an abundance of fruit crates in which to pack essentials. Clothing, cooking utensils and supplies, food, Foziah’s account books, blankets and bedrolls — and the tiny chest of gold, which was both a means to secure our safety and a risk. Any coin we spent from it would leave a trail like breadcrumbs.

I wept as I packed, crushed with guilt. This family whom I loved was losing everything.

Because of me.

Because they had opened their home and their hearts to me, they had gambled all they had and lost it in the blink of an eye.

“Can I not just leave?” I wailed. “Why must you lose your home on my behalf?” I asked of Beril as we selected items from the kitchen to carry along.

She stopped for a moment and gave me a long look, her own eyes welling with unshed tears.

“We… chose this. When we accepted you here, it was our choice. At any time we could have turned you away. I could have sent you on your way the day Yadin brought you here.”

She was silent again for a moment, her hands taking up their task almost without her attention.

“But we didn’t… I didn’t. I couldn’t. Yadin believes in you, and so I must, because I trust him. It breaks my heart to lose the farm, yes, but you lost an entire kingdom. There will be more sacrifices before this is over.”

It was my turn to fall silent. I shivered at her last words. We kept working, collecting and packing essentials.

Finally I broke the silence, tears still plaguing me. “I hate this. I never wanted any of this, never wanted anyone to come to harm.”

Beril put a jar down a little too hard. I jumped, startled.

“Nobody wanted this,” she snapped. “Nobody wanted an invader. But this is no longer about you — it’s about Miqlot. It’s about saving a kingdom, or at least saving our people from further destruction.”

She looked at me sternly. “We are trusting you to make all this sacrifice worthwhile.”

My hands shook as I kept working, the knot in my stomach rendering my knees weak.

She softened. “You are too young for this burden. But the Goddess chose you. Trust her.”

I have never been completely comfortable, even now, with talk of gods or goddesses, and in that moment I squirmed under the notion that I had been chosen for anything by a power outside my understanding. But these people trusted their Goddess, and therefore trusted me. I recalled again the vision of the golden threads, and thought there must be something to that, at least, as I had felt the tug of Adina’s betrayal before knowing what it was. Even when I’d thought her dead, I’d felt the darkness, thinking at the time that it must have been the news of all the killings at the palace.

And now I knew.

After a while, Beril sent me to collect my meager belongings from the room I had shared with Ghada. The little rag horse that Eshe had given me was tucked into my sash, my clothes and a blanket tied up in a bundle. I was just picking everything up to carry out to one of the wagons when I heard Yadin’s clattering entrance into the yard.

I hurried out to meet him, arriving in time to see him fling himself off the wagon he’d been driving. Beril had gotten to the yard ahead of me, and she and Yadin embraced briefly before he hurried inside.

Harb, Wisam, and Manal were hitching horses to the other two wagons we would be using (the palace kitchen cart had long since been dismantled and used for firewood); my mother, Maryam, Foziah, and Sira were packing them with the crates and bundles we had collected. Ghada stood to the side, her arms around Nour, who looked scared and was, for once, silent.

I handed my bundle up to my mother, who tucked it in among the other bundles already in place. Yadin reappeared moments later, wearing full battle gear, including scimitar, short sword, knives, and bow.

Beril, who had picked Nour up and was settling him into one of the wagons, looked up and quietly caught her breath but said nothing. I noticed then that Wisam, Manal, and Harb were also armed with knives and bows.

“Quickly now,” Yadin barked. “We must be gone.”

We sorted ourselves out. Yadin hoisted himself back on the wagon he had driven, still full of the trade goods they’d bright up from Iskenderun. Manal sat beside him. Harb took the reins of the second cart, with Sira, Nour, and Ghada riding in the back.

Beril and Wisam drove the third wagon, with my mother, Maryam, Foziah, and me as passengers.

Yadin and Manal leading, we took off at a clip that would eat miles but not tax the horses too badly — especially as Yadin’s two along with the one Manal had ridden up, now hitched to our wagon, were already tired.

Instead of taking the downhill track to Iskenderun, Yadin led the little train behind and beyond the house. A much smaller and less frequently used path, it led north and east, and further uphill. This was the path that Daniel used when he and members of his clan visited. It was wide enough for the wagons, just, and led away from the detachment heading toward the farm.

Beril looked resolutely ahead as we pulled away from the house. It was I who looked back, weeping afresh at the loss of another home, this one more beloved to me by far than the palace had ever been.

Manal had explained while we were packing that although he and Yadin had gotten away from Iskenderun well ahead of William’s soldiers, it was likely there were not more than an hour or two behind.

I hoped that our generous hosts from down the hill were safe, but I guessed that William’s soldiers would have no reason to stop or to suspect them even if they did, especially if they had learned the location of Yadin’s farm from informers in the city.

At least, I hoped this were true. I remembered that Daniel had invited Yusef to come visit and see his horses but Yusuf had not yet made the trip, and had never connected me to the royal family in any case, so it seemed unlikely that he or his family were in any danger.

Oh, I hoped I was right!

Despite my discomfort with prayers and divinity, I found myself offering up a silent wish to the Goddess to keep them safe, as Eshe had prayed to Allah to keep me safe those months ago.

For the first hour, along this narrow track, brush grabbing at wheels and sides, we still made good progress. But Yadin’s two horses had already been pushed hard, and even though they were strong and hardy, began flagging. Yadin stopped us briefly to switch one of the horses out with one of the two fresh ones hauling our wagon. This way, each wagon had one fresh horse, and the pace picked up again for a time. But the day was hot and we were going uphill. It soon became obvious that we needed to slow some or we would not reach Daniel’s place at all.

My heart froze when, not an hour later, and with miles yet to travel, I heard the distant sounds of our pursuers. Of course they would catch up. Even if their mounts were less familiar with this terrain, they were not hauling wagons.

I tapped Beril on the shoulder. “I hear them,” I said quietly. It was Wisam who turned in his seat to look at me, then further behind us, listening intently. He nodded, then faced forward again and gave a low whistle, like a bird call.

The call reached Harb in front of us, and he relayed another low whistle forward to Yadin and Manal. Yadin stopped his wagon and leapt off, walking to the second vehicle and speaking in low tones to its passengers. He lifted Ghada out gently and, without speaking a word the remaining family got out of the wagon. Nour asked a quiet question, but Sira shushed him quickly, and they were again silent.

Manal and Harb quickly unhitched two of the fresher horses and tied the lead of one to the saddle of the other. To my surprise, Manal gently lifted Ghada to one and then lifted Nour up to her. They took off without another word, heading further up the hill and away from our pursuers.

Stepping up beside our cart in the meantime, Yadin spoke quietly, his voice conveying urgency.

“Leave the wagons, do as the others have done, and hide in the trees. Wisam, stay with me. Prepare to fight.”

Wisam nodded, his face tight. I looked at him, then at Yadin, my heart in my throat. Two men, defending the narrow track against who knew how many of William’s men. I had never seen Wisam handle anything other than a carving knife, though I knew that he often hunted the hills for rabbits and other small game to help fill out the family table.

We crept as quietly as we could into the trees, and I remembered that Harb and Manal also carried hunting bows. The undergrowth was dense, which both blocked and protected our retreat. Soon we were gathered in a little knot on a slight rise, barely able to see the path through the summer leaves.

Harb and Manal climbed nearby trees and nocked arrows, ready to fire on our pursuers.

On the path, Yadin drew both scimitar and short sword, while Wisam pulled a heavy sledgehammer from the cart, dropping the head on the ground and leaning the haft against the wagon. Only then did he nock an arrow, one foot braced next to the sledgehammer.

Yadin stood beside and slightly in front of Wisam, giving himself enough room to swing the scimitar and staying out of Wisam’s forward line of fire.

Then we waited.

It was as though the forest held its breath — even the birds seemed subdued. The heat was stultifying. It was slightly cooler among the leaves, but the air was still and heavy. I was certain my heartbeat was audible to the men pursuing us. Their progress was easy to mark now. They made no attempt to be quiet, or so it seemed to me, for I could hear the jingle of metal and the creak of leather along with the thump of their horses’ hooves. I heard no voices, and I wondered if the heat had worn them down.

We did not have long to wait. I heard a shout, and Wisam let fly. From our position in the trees, we could not yet see the invaders, and I heard Harb curse quietly, lamenting the poor visibility.

Wisam nocked again quickly and fired.

We had, it seemed, the element of surprise, as I saw no return fire. Instead, I saw two horses rush forward, swords in their riders’ hands. Yadin made quick work of them, dispatching them with his blades before Wisam had time to nock a third arrow.

Finally the rest of the riders came into view, and Harb and Manal fired on them from above, quickly downing two more. Yadin’s blades flashed in the dappled sunlight, and Wisam threw his bow aside in favor of the sledgehammer, swinging it with heart-stopping speed and accuracy.

The soldiers seemed to move sluggishly, their ridiculously unwieldy armor working against them in this narrow pathway. Despite being frightfully outnumbered, Yadin and Wisam clearly had the advantage, fighting nimbly from the ground, with support from the trees, and better accustomed to the summer heat.

Manal and Harb continued firing, and I noted an odd detail: that even as furiously as Yadin and Wisam were fighting, they were careful not to harm the horses, or at least do minimal damage. I thought it was to protect the horses so they could take them, and perhaps it was, but I also noticed that Yadin, especially, was able to take advantage of the resulting confusion, sliding quickly between the horses to swing and stab at riders.

One rider turned away and began heading back down the hill. One of our archers, I’m not sure which, fired at the retreating back. I heard a scream — a woman’s voice! — from the falling rider.

The horse continued running a few paces down the path, then tore off into the trees, crashing through the underbrush below us. Sira ran after it, quickly securing it by — my jaw dropped — closing the distance and leaping to its back, grabbing the reins as she did so and pulling up. This halted the horse, who reared and shivered, then stopped. She tied it to a tree.

The invaders had finally caught on to our tree-borne archers and began firing up at us, generally missing wildly. We were not easy targets, buried as we were by the summer growth and uphill besides. But one arrow found its mark. Manal grunted in pain as the arrow thudded into his shoulder and halfway out his back; he dropped his bow, his arm suddenly without strength.

Sira had made her way back to us and picked up the bow. “Arrows!” she shouted up at Manal.

He awkwardly tossed down his quiver, spilling about half the contents. Sira bent down, picked one up and fired down at the assailants, hitting one through the neck with deadly accuracy.

I had had no idea Sira could do such things.

Manal was hanging on to the bole of the tree with his uninjured arm. His face was grey with pain. I leapt to my feet before I could even think about what I was doing, and swarmed up the tree — I had discovered a talent in the orchards for climbing trees, and it served me well now. As I reached him I could see he was losing consciousness, so for a moment, I j just wrapped myself around him and the tree, pinning him to the trunk while taking care to avoid the arrow.

“Manal!” I urged him. “Manal, try to stay awake. You need to come down from the tree and I can’t carry you.”

His eyes opened and he tried to focus on my face, so close to his. “I … I can’t. Oh, it hurts.”

“I know, cousin, I know, but if you stay here, we may both be killed. Manal, please —”

He coughed once and groaned. I didn’t know how we would manage this. Another arrow flew past, close enough to catch a bit of my hair, and I realized that my flaming locks made us more of a target. Stupid.

“Manal!” I squeezed him, trying to keep him awake.

He took a breath and it caught, the pain causing him to seize up. But his eyes were alert again and he nodded. I untangled myself from him and stepped down to a lower branch, staying close to steady him.

Another arrow whizzed past us, on the other side of the tree. Sira, below, raced to retrieve it, and fired it back down the hill, striking one of the invaders’ horses.

“Oh, damn!” I heard her mutter tightly.

As Manal and I made our way slowly back down the tree, his useless arm dangling limply at his side, I directed him to swing around to the uphill side of the tree, putting it between us and the soldiers below. Another arrow thudded against the trunk near my hand — too near! — and I jumped the few remaining feet to the ground. I watched Manal, and kept a hand on his leg as he neared the forest floor, ready to catch him if he fell.

I was aware that the action below was slowing after that last arrow was fired, and I hoped we’d seen the last of the attackers.

Manal lowered himself to the ground with Maryam’s help, and she and Sira took over, Sira abandoning the bow and dropping to her knees beside him.

In the path below, I saw a confused tangle of live horses and dead or dying invaders. Yadin and WIsam moved among them, finishing them off with their knives. Bile rose in my throat and I turned away, looking uphill and breathing the cedar-scented air deeply.

I heard a scuffle below and before I could fully turn back around, I heard a grunt, Wisam’s cry and Beril’s scream. She went tearing down the hill, slipping and tumbling, screaming Yadin’s name. I raced after her.

He had fallen. I saw Wisam’s hammer swing in a long arc, landing with a sickening thud on the head of the man whose sword was lodged in Yadin’s chest. The man died in that moment, but it was too late. He had dealt Yadin a mortal blow.

Beril skidded to a stop beside him, calling his name desperately.

I saw her cradle his head in her lap. His eyes turned toward her and his hand reached up to touch her face.

“Oh, my Beril, my love” I heard him say weakly as I fell to my knees as the edge of the path. “I love you so. I’m so very sorry.”

“Oh, no, no, oh, no no-no-no… please, you cannot leave us!”

“The Goddess wills it…” His voice was growing weaker. “Go to Daniel’s camp, hide yourself among them. You will all be safe there, and well cared for.”

He looked around at Wisam, who had dropped the hammer and was weeping openly.

“Protect our family, my son. Protect our Queen.”

Wisam shook his head in disbelief but did not speak.

Yadin looked back at Beril. “Manal? Sira?”

“They are safe,” she replied. “Manal is injured, but he will survive and be well in time.”

I crept around to Yadin’s other side, and he turned his head toward me.

“Malka — your majesty — my queen. Do not despair. Save our kingdom. Save our people. You are wise beyond your years. Send these Romans home.” He coughed.

“Yadin, my love, do not speak —“ Beril began, and he turned his head toward her again.

“The Goddess blessed us, my love. I go to her arms, and will make a place for you there.”

Beril stroked his cheek, tears running freely down her dirt-streaked face.

“The Goddess blessed me when she brought you to me. I will miss you, my heart, and will tell tales around the fire of your kindness and courage and faith.”

He smiled.

And then he was gone.

The world around us was silent, as though it, too, grieved, and then Beril threw her head back and keened her breaking heart to the heavens.

Manal had made his way down the hill, leaning heavily on Maryam and my mother, Sira ahead of them.

Manal and Sira, Harb, and finally Wisam, all knelt. My mother and Maryam followed their example.

Quietly under Beril’s ululating cry, I heard the tiny thread of an unfamiliar song. Sira sang in a language unknown to me, and I knew it was a mourning song.

Beril’s singing provided sharp counterpoint as the others picked up the tune. I felt a sob well up and I clapped my hands over my mouth and shut my eyes, rocking and weeping. The sob escaped me and I leaned forward to plant my forehead on the soil beneath me, my own cry leaking between my fingers and into the earth.

The song continued, the words merely sounds to my ears, the melody an odd shift from anything I had heard before. Gradually my sobs receded, Beril’s keening faded and the singing wound itself out.

We sat in silence for a time, oblivious to the carnage around us. The riderless horses stamped and blew, and little by little the world came alive again.

It was my mother, ever the practical one, who stirred first, even her unyielding face stricken with grief.

“We must move on,” she said, her voice cracking and rough.

Beril nodded and shifted slowly away from Yadin’s lifeless body, carefully lowering his head to the ground. She touched his dear face again, then stood as though her body had aged decades in a single moment.

“We will take him on to Daniel’s camp and sing him again to the bosom of the Goddess.” Her voice was nearly gone, its power carried off in her grieving cry.

I could hardly move, but if Beril could stand, so could I.

Wisam and Harb wrapped Yadin gently in a blanket after removing the sword that had killed him (and what a horrible sound that had made).

Maryam and Sira tended to Manal, examining the arrow, whose head protruded from the back of Manal’s shoulder, and decided it could be broken and removed.

“This will hurt,” Maryam told him. He nodded grimly. Sira took a belt from one of the dead men and placed it between his teeth. He bit down. Sira, my mother, and I held on to him, Sira and my mother at his arms as I sat across his legs. Maryam broke the arrow as close as she could to Manal’s shoulder, then quickly slid the remainder out from his back. He screamed through the belt and writhed nearly out of our grasp. He fainted briefly, but came to as Maryam was binding his shoulder, packing the wound with scrap fabric from the wagon, and wrapping the rest around him to immobilize his arm against his side.

Once Harb and Wisam had laid Yadin’s body in the nearest wagon, it was time to gather the horses.

There were eight in all, though it had seemed like more in the midst of the battle. They would be a valuable addition to Daniel’s stock, for though they were enormous, they were also strong — clearly bred to carry the men with their heavy armor.

Sira and Harb roped them together, preparing to ride one and lead three each. The war horses remained calm under the sure hands of these two, who knew exactly how to handle them.

Wisam would drive the lead wagon, Maryam the second, and Beril the last, the one with Yadin’s body laid in it.

We were just mounting when we heard a woman’s voice moaning from the lower end of the trail. I had forgotten completely about her.

Harb shouted up to Wisam to hold for a moment while he investigated. He dismounted and walked back to the woman that had been part of the hunting party.

I had not yet gotten into a wagon, so I followed him. My mother was not far behind, and Beril as well. The rest caught up as we gathered around the woman, stirring amidst a rat’s nest of heavy, impractical fabric. She bled from a wound in her side where Manal or Harb’s arrow had struck her.

As she rolled over and looked up at the gathered company, I gasped.

“Adina!” I hadn’t recognized her in her foreigner’s clothing; I barely recognized her now. Her fine clothes were a wreck, covered with blood and dirt, and her face was bruised and filthy.

I had not put together that of course she had come along with the raiders.

“What do you here?” I asked her.

“Forgive me, my queen — they would have killed me… I was frightened…”

“How did they find out who I was? Where I was?”

She turned her head away. “I am weak. They asked me who the child was, and I said it was you, but they didn’t believe me and said they would kill me…”

Beril gasped. “Is this the nurse you left behind? The one who was to guard your secret with her life?” Her voice was quiet, ragged with grief, but frightening in its intensity.

All of us from the palace nodded, and Adina closed her eyes.

Beril knelt beside her suddenly and grabbed the girl’s hair, yanking her head back. Adina’s eyes flew open, startled, and she cried out in pain. Leaning forward until their noses nearly touched, Beril hissed, “You betrayed your queen. You betrayed your country. You betrayed her best general, my husband, who is now dead. His blood is on your soul. You betrayed your own people! — and for what? Silks? A bed? Did you sell your flesh for safety while your betrayal sent Rome’s dogs on the hunt?”

Adina’s eyes closed again, and she trembled in fear. “Forgive me lady… forgive me, my queen…”

Faster than I thought possible, a knife flashed in Beril’s hand, opening Adina’s throat and emptying her blood upon the ground.

“Goddess forgive me,” she whispered. “Goddess forgive me. And Goddess forgive you, for I cannot.”

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