Authors: Miriam Minger
Tags: #Fiction, #Historical, #Medieval, #General, #Historical Fiction, #Romance, #Historical Romance
"This way, mistress,"
said over his broad shoulder, his effeminate voice intruding upon her reverie.
He gestured with the lantern, the weaving light causing their shadows to bob
and sway against the stucco walls. "Since I am with you," he stated
pointedly, "we shall take the main streets which are faster than the rear
alleys allowed to women, yes?"
Leila shot him a withering glance as an answer, but the
eunuch only chuckled.
She was still piqued at him for betraying her attempt
to leave the house without an escort. As long as there was daylight, she was
allowed to come and go as she pleased, but since it was so near dusk, he had
gone running to tell her mother. Eve,
had caught up with her just as she was about to pass
through the guarded harem doors. Her mother's troubling reprimand was still
fresh in her mind.
"Leila, you know women are not allowed to walk
about unescorted at night," Eve had chided her. "Why must you be so
willful and reckless?"
"It is not yet dark, Mother," she had
objected somewhat lamely, feeling suddenly foolish and much younger than her
Eve waved her small, delicate hand in a dismissive
gesture. "Listen well to me, my daughter. As you say, it is not dark. But
you cannot expect the trappings and privileges of your profession to protect
you when the hour grows late and the streets become empty. These are dangerous
times, Leila. You, as a Christian, should know that well. The crusaders swarm
over the land again, inciting fierce hatred and a lust for revenge that could
mark any Christian as a potential target. You wear the
"I am not the same as them!" Leila blurted
indignantly. "Any Damascene citizen would recognize that, Mother" —she
tugged on the striped sash around her waist— "whether I wear this or not.
The crusaders are barbarians. Wild savages who cross the sea in the name of God
and piety, but who truly come to pillage and rape and destroy what they don't
understand. We are civilized, Mother. We live here in peace, while those—those
Christians think only of plunder and conquest."
"You speak of your own blood, Leila. Your heritage
. . ." Eve's voice trailed off to a whisper, a faraway look haunting her
eyes. "Ah, how can you know? I have told you so little. It is another
world, another place."
"Mother," Leila said gently. Disconcerted by
Eve's pensive, slightly sad expression, she felt her anger quickly fading. "Father
will be waiting for me. I must go."
"Yes, you must," Eve said, her gaze finding
Leila's once more. "Take
Leila nodded, wanting more than anything at that moment
to ease her mother's mind. For weeks Eve had seemed troubled and unusually
quiet, so unlike herself, often studying Leila with a strangely wistful
"I'll take ten slaves with me if it will please
you," she said in an attempt to make Eve smile. She felt a sense of relief
when some of the sparkle returned to her mother's lustrous eyes.
Eve had said, leaning forward and kissing Leila's cheek. "He is stout, but
he is also very strong. Go now, daughter. Your father is patient, but he will
wonder what is keeping you."
As she puzzled over what could be distressing her
mother, Leila's thoughts were nudged back to the present when
suddenly dropped back beside her, his plump hand
straying to the long, jeweled dagger hidden beneath his sleeveless coat. She
followed his watchful eyes to the three Bedouin merchants approaching them on
the other side of the main street, each leading a lumbering camel.
Leila bowed her head modestly until the men had passed,
very much aware that they studied her curiously, their dark eyes glinting in
the golden lamplight. She did not feel threatened, but in that fleeting instant
she was reluctantly grateful for
With the eunuch taking the lead again they walked on,
passing the Great Mosque with its three graceful minarets; one of them, the
Minaret of the Bride, was the oldest in Islam. At the northwest corner of the
mosque stood the tomb of Saladin, the most powerful sultan of the
dynasty, who had won back Jerusalem almost a hundred
years ago from the crusaders led by Richard the Lion-Hearted.
"Crusaders," Leila muttered in disgust, again
recalling her mother's anxious voice. "Vile barbarians, every one."
It shamed her to think she was bred from such a
treacherous and unscrupulous race. Though Eve had taught her the crusaders'
language as a little girl, Leila rarely used it now, preferring to speak
Arabic. Nor had her mother ever insisted she speak the foreign tongue, even
when they were alone.
Eve had told her practically nothing about her true
father or the strange, distant land called England. It was almost as if Eve was
loath to dredge up old, probably painful memories.
fine with Leila.
Such knowledge was of no consequence to her. Her home
was here in Damascus.
All she knew of the crusaders was that every time their
ships landed upon the shores of the Arab Empire, they brought discord and
brutal destruction to a society of refinement, culture, and unsurpassed
learning. It was enough to make her hate them all.
"We are . . . almost there, mistress,"
said raggedly, beginning to wheeze from exertion. The
climb up the crooked street to the citadel, the fortress overlooking the city,
was steep. The governor's prison was just outside the citadel's thick,
Leila's stomach knotted as they neared the forbidding
flat-roofed building in anticipation of what she would find inside. She
remembered the stench. The tortured screaming. The rats.
She shuddered. Yes, the rats were the worst part, but
she had no choice. Her father needed her assistance.
Leila said, overtaking the eunuch easily. "You may go home now. I can
manage the rest of the way myself."
"I will see you there, esteemed mistress," he
replied obstinately, wiping his thick neck with a sodden handkerchief. "Your
beloved mother would be most displeased if I did not, yes?"
Leila clamped her mouth shut, knowing any protest would
be useless. She waited until he had caught up to her, then they walked the last
few paces together, stopping just outside the huge, arched entrance to the
A dozen fierce-looking guards stared back at them with
little expression, but when Leila introduced herself they quickly parted ranks
and allowed her to pass through the tall iron gates. They knew she was the
daughter and apprentice of
private physician of
, the governor of
Damascus, and of Sultan
that great man journeyed to Damascus from the imperial city of Cairo.
Wide-eyed and nervous again, Leila glanced over her shoulder
just before she was swallowed up by a dark, inner hallway. She saw
already trudging back down the hill, the lantern
swaying in front of him. A silent guard steered her by the elbow into a
well-lit chamber, where with a surge of relief she spied her father. His
presence was so commanding, so
could not help but be calmed by it.
"There you are, my daughter,"
exclaimed, his robes swirling as he strode over to
her with a grave look on his handsome face. "I have only just arrived
myself from the hospital." Before she could catch her breath enough to
respond, he took her arm and guided her through another set of iron gates. "Come.
We must hurry."
Leila flinched when the heavy gates clanked shut behind
them. She was thankful for the reassuring pressure of her father's hand on her
arm and for the two well-armed guards leading the way.
As their silent group ventured deeper into the prison,
they were assailed at every turn by putrid odors and pitiful moaning, like
Leila's worst nightmare come to life. She could swear she heard rats squeaking
and skittering in the dark, musty corners. She looked neither right nor left,
hoping to spare herself any horrible images she would have a difficult time
forgetting, but tormented shrieks or unintelligible gibberish occasionally drew
her gaze to the prison's unfortunate inmates.
Near-skeletal figures draped in dirty rags peered from
cells, hopeless, macabre shadows of what had once
been strong fighting men. Leila knew that many of them were prisoners of war,
but some were debtors or criminals.
Whatever their crime, most would never again see the
light of day. The governor's prison was renowned for the cruelty and torture
inflicted within its walls. It was a rare and fortunate man who ever walked out
Tarnished brass lamps lit the high-ceilinged interior
of the next cavernous room they entered. It was much cleaner than the area they
had just passed through, with freshly swept floors and a few small square
windows opened to the evening breeze. She knew this part of the building was
where the privileged prisoners were kept.
Arched wooden doors fitted with hinged peepholes lined
both sides of the room, opening into small, individual cells. All appeared
empty, save for the last one on the left. Two guards flanked the yawning door,
from which a swath of yellow light cut across the floor.
"He's in there,"
said, releasing her arm and hurrying to the cell.
"Who?" Leila asked, following him.
ducked his head and went inside, his resonant voice carrying out to her. "Good,
the guards already carried in my bags. Everything we need is here. Leila, are
She drew a deep breath as she unfastened her face veil.
Please may there not be rats, she prayed.
She stepped inside, her eyes adjusting to the cell's
brightness. There were at least fifteen lanterns placed around the stone walls,
filling the cramped interior with light. In a far comer hot coals glowed inside
a large copper brazier.
At first Leila could not see the patient for the four
soldiers flanking the foot of a wooden cot placed
in the center of the cell. They were members of the governor's elite fighting
corps, and their forbidding presence told her one thing. The patient was more
than likely a prisoner of war.
She began to walk around the soldiers, and almost
tripped over a pile of interlocking iron rings heaped on the floor. She had
never seen anything like them before. She tried to pick up one end of what
appeared to be a long-sleeved shirt, but the rings were so heavy she could not
lift them. She drew her hand away, inhaling sharply when she saw that her
fingers were covered in blood.
She thought she had cut herself, but when she wiped her
hand on her
the blood was transferred to the
linen garment and the pads of her fingers remained unmarred.
"My daughter, I have need of your assistance!"
snapped, startling her.
Embarrassed to have been caught dawdling, Leila rushed
around the soldiers to her father's side where she stopped short, staring in
openmouthed astonishment at the strapping blond giant lying unconscious upon
the cot. He was so tall and huge that his heavily muscled limbs dangled off the
Instinctively she noted that he was drenched in sweat,
his magnificently built body wracked by tremors. Yet despite his condition, a
raw power emanated from him, a vibrant life force which seemed to fill the
small cell. She could almost feel his great strength in the simple rise and
fall of his massive chest, and it overwhelmed her completely.
who is he, Father?" she stammered, her gaze coming to
rest upon the man's ashen face.
"A crusader knight,"
said, cursing as he cut away a sweat- and blood-soaked padded vest to reveal a
vicious shoulder wound. Bright red blood flowed in a steady trickle from the
ugly gash, which judging from its shape and depth had been inflicted by a
curved scimitar. "And soon to be a dead man, Leila, if you do not cease
gaping and help me stop this bleeding. We will have to
cauterize. Prepare the irons. Now!"
Shocked into action by
sharp command, Leila found several iron rods of various sizes in one of his
bags and rushed over to place them on the glowing coals in the brazier. She
watched as the long, sharpened tips grew red, then drew a protective glove over
her hand and seized the first rod that was ready. She hastened back to her
"Hold his limbs,"
commanded the four soldiers who quickly positioned themselves around the cot,
each grabbing an arm or leg. "Tightly."
a good thing he's
unconscious," Leila said, holding out the rod to her father. "He will
feel the pain, but perhaps he will not remember it."
nodded grimly, but he
did not take the iron from her. "This time you must do it, my daughter,"
he directed, walking to the front of the cot, where he placed his hands on the
crusader's uninjured shoulder. "I fear this man's strength will be great,
even now. I must help to hold him down." His tone grew urgent. "Quickly,
Leila, before the iron cools."
She did not waste an instant. She knew the procedure
well, having performed it many times at the hospital. With practiced assurance,
she bent over the crusader and laid the red-hot iron on his ravaged flesh.
A wild, tortured scream rent the air, sending chills
down Leila's spine as the crusader's body arched violently upon the cot. Her
father had been right. It was all the five strong men could do to hold him