Stories Out of Omarie
From "A STORY OUT OF OMARIE"
25 Rajab 514
My mother and her husband traveled uneventfully for some days. Then they drew near to something called a forest. Imagine, if you can, thick towering bushes, row upon row receding into darkness. Imagine entering the Great Mosque when the lamps are not lit; this place was even larger, and the road there forked.
Reaching over, he took her hand and said, "Hodierna, one day we will have a child, and whether a son or a daughter, it will be as Jesus wills, praise be to Him! But here let the road we take be of your choosing."
My mother peered down the road on the right; then she regarded the other way, which stretched ahead fair and clear as far as they could see.
"Let us take the left road, Thibault," she said.
So they took that road, which showed every evidence of favor, being well-trodden and wide. But when they had gone some way down it, it began suddenly to contract, while the scrub overhead grew so dense, it turned morning to evening. Soon their path was so narrow, they could not even ride side by side. Then Thibault, who had taken the lead, saw in the darkness ahead four darker shapes, which loomed forward. He drew rein, turned round, and even as he did so, four more men emerged from the trees behind them. He said to my mother, "This was written. Try not to be afraid."
The ill-clad men did not return his salute. My mother was still hoping it was the shadows that made these fellows look so menacing when Thibault tried again: "Sirs, you have interrupted two pilgrims on their way; be so good as to say what business you have with us."
Perhaps there were words in the growled reply, perhaps not; at any rate, he swerved. A blow sliced the air, he caught the hand of it squeezed, and grabbed the hilt as it fell. Now he had two swords. He ripped up one's bowels, drove through another's neck; then he faced the swordless bandit and abstracted his life.
The five who still lived almost retreated. But when they looked at my mother, they dared again. The largest ruffian lunged at the horse while the others followed, feinting; then he dropped back, skirted the tussle, crept in again and plunged a knife into the palfrey. Soon Thibault lay naked in the dust. They shredded his garments and bound his ankles and wrists. First they hefted him like a bundle, then they swung him like a hammock. Merry, they maneuvered, choosing a spot, swung him higher and let him go; he broke into a thorn-bush, screaming.
That game finished, they turned to my mother. She was still in the saddle, weeping. They pulled her down, and stripped her, though this time they did not harm the clothes. She was as white as the inner lip of a conch. Too frightened to blush, she appeared the more flawless for pallor. They turned her around, examining her, surprised to find no imperfections. Then one of them grasped her arm and said, "I have lost a brother here, I will take this for blood-money." But the others all asserted similar rights, till the first finally shouted, "Look at us! We can't keep her! We should just do what we want, and leave. But let's get off the road." So they dragged her deeper into the woods, threw her down on some leaves, and each man had her as often as he could. As her skin took their grime and blood, she broke out in a cool dew which, mixing with the scent of the moss underneath, made her even lovelier. They kept coming back to the beads on her hairline, her wet lashes, the clench of her hands. At length, when she had grown as smudged and bloody as they, they hustled her back to the highway, where she reeled as they disappeared.
So, Malakin, now that you know this, do you still want me?
27 Rajab 514
When I entered the room and saw you, you to whom I had already told so many secrets, when I saw the pen in my father's hand, I felt more than ever capable of speech. When he pointed to you and said, "Daughter, you know Malakin," I at once understood what had passed between you. I did not need to be informed that you had asked for my hand. And Father realized this: he said nothing more. I fell on my knees and kissed his feet, such joy is it to me to accomplish the will of the Soudan. You know how I have yearned for you: here we are, you are mine! I will tell you everything that I can.
Thibault of Dommare was a knight in my grandfather's house. My grandfather, the Count of Ponthieu, was very fond of him.
They were returning from one of those contests of warriors that the Franj delight in when the Count, who was feeling self-satisfied, turned to his companion and demanded, "Thibault, which of all my treasures seems most splendid to you?"
The way he phrased his question, he might have been offering a gift; but this was not the case. The Count was a man of great appetities, and he savored the whetting of them so keenly, that when he had exhausted his own power to whip them up, he would turn for help to those near him. He needed their desires. Thibault knew him well, so he said what he thought would most gratify him.
"There can be no doubt about it, my lord; it is your daughter."
How curiously love happens! Thibault had never till that moment given my mother any particular thought. But even as the sentence left his mouth, he realized that he was in love with her, and that he would be a fool not to press this chance home.
"I am only a beggar, my lord, as you know, but when I contemplate all your wealth, I feel no envy except in her regard."
My grandfather did not betray any feeling. He too had had an idea.
"Well, Sir Beggar," he answered slowly, "I am not unwilling to let you have her. That is, of course, if she doesn't mind."
So the Count sought out his daughter. The curtain at her end of the hall was pulled back and he could see her graceful figure as it dipped and gestured, all unconscious of the news he was bringing her. When she turned to face him, he found himself regretting that the Law of Jesus Christ was so strict; he would have been happy to wed her himself.
He led her to the edge of the bed and sat down, holding her hands.
"My pretty Hodierna," he said, "A woman already! What would you say to getting married?"
My mother hid her apprehension. "To whom, father?"
"Well, perhaps to a knight of this household, a man called Thibault of Dommare. I have high hopes of him. But if you are against it, I will just tell him No."
"Oh, father," she said, " if you were the King of Christendom and I your only princess-- if I could choose from all the husbands in Europe, I would choose this same Thibault. I would marry him right now! I would give him everything!"
The Count took her in his arms; even as a child she had always known what he wanted. "Hodierna," he whispered, "May the Lord bless your pretty little person, for He blessed me the day you were born!"
I found you otherwise, not suddenly, but with as great joy. Nor was it necessary for the Soudan to enquire after the state of my heart since he bore it within his, and had long ago seen you traveling toward me. My mother was lucky in being glad to do her father's will; but in my submission luck plays no part. Since I could speak I have wanted to be nowhere but at his feet. So what I performed in your presence when I entered the room was but a recital of a dream to the dreaming; the actual letter had been long ago sent.
"Sire," you said to the the Soudan, "I crave a gift."
"Malakin," the Soudan said, "what is this gift?"
"Sire," you said, " it is very far above me. It is a treasure so knowing, so memorious and filled with light that I cannot compass it in my mind. I cannot imagine calling it my own; so I am afraid to speak its name before you."
My father is quick-witted; he easily guessed your gift.
"Say it out, Malakin. Be assured that I love you; I know full well that I am nothing without you. Whatever I have to give is yours-- who else could require it?-- provided it lies within my law to bestow."
"Your honor is mine, Sire," you said. "What I crave is your obedient daughter, the Fair Captive. She is all that I see in this world, wherever I go, wherever I look. I want nothing but to share her captivity."
The Soudan paused and considered. He knows you so well. He does not lightly weigh such courage as yours.
"You require a great thing, Malakin. However, you deserve it. She is yours, if it pleases her to accept you."
That is when I was summoned, and found you.