From the beginning of THE ROSE OF SHARON


Prologue 1

Childhood’s End

Al Cazar, Los Alcazares, a village in
the south east of Spain, during the 1360s

 Sulking, and wanting to worry them, I spent all day in the sea.

And all night.

But when I came home next day, no one cared where I’d been, only that I was back. For Papa was dying and had been calling for me.

What was it he wanted to tell me? I shall never know. He tried desperately to speak and I tried as desperately to help him, to say it for him, but this produced no response except that it obviously was not that and I was wasting his strength, wasting the precious moments.

And then he was dead.

I didn’t start screaming and wailing.

Should I have done?

I sat there with him for an hour, two hours, three, holding his hand still as I had been holding it when he died, when he was still trying to speak.

The afternoon went by.

Khadija came and went, reluctant for once to disturb me, but when it began to grow dark, she took me by the shoulders, turned me towards her.

‘You must leave him now, Maryam. You must come with me, have something to eat, something to drink.’

‘Why?’

‘If you do not, you too will get ill, will die.’

 

I could have spent so much more time with him [I wrote that night], I could have made him happier both from day to day and from year to year. He was so lonely, so sad. And watching me all the time, knowing that I preferred the company of Yacoub, of Pedro even.

And there the paper is smudged, splashed with tears. I remember it happening. I cried all night.

 

Next morning, it was terribly hot, one of those days you get in Spain when the hot weather gets hotter, hotter than hot. The sky is like white-hot metal and the sun molten gold polishing it. Yet, despite the heat, Don Lope came, with two of his men. He had not come for me, he said – that could wait. He had come to rifle through Papa’s papers and effects.

When he had the papers he wanted, though, and was ready to leave, he suddenly said ‘Are you ready?’ Then to Khadija, ‘Get the muchacha ready.’

He had come for me! He meant to take me with him, now!

Khadija started wailing.

He gave up on her, said it didn’t matter, he would take me as I was.

Unprotesting – I had been in a daze all day – I was hustled out of the door.

Khadija’s wailing turned to screaming.

Don Lope signalled to one of his men, a big brute with sloping shoulders, who stepped over and hit her hard on the face to silence her.

That woke me up.

I broke free and ran towards her, intending only to comfort her, to see how badly she’d been hurt, but the man raised his fist again and instantly my dagger was out, the handle smooth and tempting in my hand, the stiletto point poised at his back. ‘You hit her again, you die!’ I screamed.

Laughing, and without even bothering to turn round, he hit her again, full in the face as she looked up, looked at me in horror.

The stiletto slid between the ribs exactly as it had that other time on the road back from Córdoba.

It took him minutes to die.

He tried at first to shout, to threaten, then lay there bubbling and gurgling, and neither of them went to help him.

All through the long minutes, I held Khadija protectively, glaring around like a lynx from the high sierras cornered in a farmyard, and she sobbed in my arms.

They kept back, Don Lope and the other man, a younger man I was going to come to know much better in the next few days. Well, they would: I was still holding the blood-smeared knife in my right hand. Mariana la Loca.

But when the man was dead, and Don Lope had promised, ‘No one will lay another finger on your slave, Mariana – only she cannot come with us,’ all the fight went out of me. We left her there, protesting from the doorway that I needed a duenna with me, a chaperone, that I could not travel alone with two strange men.

‘I’m not a strange man!’ roared Don Lope. ‘I’m her father’s business partner, and now I’m responsible for her!’ He waved the sheaf of papers at her then put them away in his saddle-bag. ‘And get that body buried before anyone else sees it – unless you want the muchacha accused of murder.’

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