I wrote this story ages ago. So, it’s not particularly well written, but it did earn a spot in Tales of the Sword, edited by Dorothy Davies. If you like this story, please considering buying the anthology.
Warning: adult content ahead (not really, but need to warn the kiddies). Also, this is a love story. I think the first (and only) one I’ve written. You’ve been warned.
* * *
1391 – At the edge of the Emirate of Granada on the Iberian Peninsula
“Take up that sword.”
Elijah looked to where the turbaned Moor pointed. A man’s guts filled the room with a smell Elijah found familiar. Memory flashed a scene before his mind’s eye. He gagged, but forced it away. His gaze skirted beyond the blood seeping into the dirt floor and concentrated on the dead man’s hands wrapped around the hilt of a short sword.
“I don’t…I’ve never…”
Shouts from outside his small home made him jump in place.
The Moor scowled at him. “You’re a farmer. You chop wood, plow the field, and harvest your grains. You can wield a sword.”
More shouts and the ring of steel-on-steel filtered through the window, and the Moor took his leave without another word.
Elijah stared out the open door into a darkening sky. He wanted to go after the man and thank him. The Moor just saved Elijah’s life, having killed the raiding Christian who invaded his home, but he feared what he would encounter outside. He was a farmer, not a warrior. All he could do was hope the Arab and his small band of men would save the Jewish community from the northern hordes — and do so before nightfall.
With Elijah’s face flushed with shame, he looked at the corpse in his home. The Christian looked much like himself; dressed in breeches and a tunic, his feet bare with cracked nails. Elijah realized they were probably the same age, in their prime. Thanks to YAHWEH, and despite his cowardice, he lived and the sword-wielder at his feet burned in hell.
Was that right? Did he owe YAHWEH? Or the Moor and his god?
A scream not ten paces away filled his one-room home. His family and neighbors suffered and died while there he stood, feet rooted with fear. He swallowed hard, the dry pain making him grimace as he knelt down beside the dead man. Taking care to avoid the blood, he tried to shift the dead man’s hands away from the hilt of the sword, but they refused to move. Even in death, the man’s grip held true.
Peeling the Christian’s fingers off the hilt, he got to his feet. Elijah held the sword before him and marveled at the straight blade. Though he tried hard to know little about swords, Elijah could mark the weight of good iron. The ivory hilt, banded with gold, felt warm and hard in his hand. It was not an unpleasant sensation.
Elijah could not imagine the poor soldier at his feet ever having enough money to purchase such a fine weapon. It must have been loot the Christian stole from the good people of Granada as they pushed the Moors ever south to the belly of the Iberian Peninsula. It might have even belonged to one of Elijah’s brethren, Jews fighting to claim a small spot of peace.
Rough voices threw challenges outside his home, and Elijah stepped into the evening, his new sword at his side.
Would fear grip again at a crucial moment?
He steeled himself against the thought, and started towards a tangled group of men.
The Moor who saved him fought a horse-mounted Christian. The horse’s flanks bled as the Moor danced around, swiping with his wicked curved blade at the armored man atop it.
The baker’s son, his brave heart bigger than his young stature, used a club to beat a fighter wrestling with Elijah’s uncle. More of the Moor’s men drove a line of Christian soldiers between the closely spaced huts in a vain hope to drive them back across the river. Down the path that ran through their village, another group of men fought.
If this did not end soon, someone would light a torch and their homes, fields, and livelihoods would burn.
Trembling with rage, a fire lit inside Elijah, and the world turned red. His steps sped, and an unearthly howl filled the evening air. His new blade slashed across men’s backs, faces, and torsos. In his arm, the sword felt free do as it pleased as Elijah tried to dance like the Moor. He spun up and across the beaten horse’s back, ramming the sword through the soldier. Blood drenched Elijah’s hand as he landed on the other side.
Moving with a macabre grace, he slashed at a man about to hack at his uncle, then another beside him. His sight blurred at the periphery, honing sharp as a blade at the men that plagued his homeland. No one could stop his fury.
A shout too close to his ear made him jump up from a crouch. Blood roared in his ears. Glancing down at his feet, he saw a mass of sliced flesh that might once have been a man. The Moor that had save him stood before them both, tears in his eyes and his turban gone. A stiff wind batted his long, black braid out behind him. In the darkening sky, it looked like a serpent. Elijah lifted the sword, muscles tensing to move in and remove the offending creature.
The Moor brought up his hands. “No! By Allah’s power: STOP.”
Elijah’s eyes snapped to the Moor’s lips and the world went dark.
* * *
Voices woke Elijah. He opened his eyes to candle light and the familiar sight of his ceiling. He raised himself onto his elbows, and a girl came quickly to his side. She pressed down on his chest. “Shhh, sleep now. Rabbi Abraham says you need rest.”
It took him a moment to focus on her face. The potter’s daughter. He noted a few bruises on her face and arms, but she seemed intact otherwise.
“What happened? Are they gone?”
A sad smile tugged at her lips as she pulled away from him. “They are gone. We lost many. We would all be gone if not for the local imam’s warriors and…you.” She looked away from him at the last word.
The rabbi came and pushed her away. Others crowded around Elijah’s cot. He recognized village elders, and noted a few that were missing. Some wore nervous smiles while most frowned. He wondered why they were there, with him, and not with the wounded.
“My brother…did he…”
The Rabbi knelt beside him and took up his bloody hand in his own, easing him back down on the cot. “Your brother is lost, Elijah. He died swiftly and is with God, praise be unto Him. There’s no reason to worry about him anymore. We must speak of your…affliction…” He looked away, too.
“Affliction? What do you mean?” Elijah noticed the drying blood on his hand and pulled it away from the rabbi. “I’m hurt. I need to clean the wound.”
“None of your blood was spilled.” The voice was too harsh. Who said it? His uncle?
Elijah swung his legs over the cot and tried to stand, but his legs gave out. With a hand on the rabbi’s shoulder, he eased himself back down in a way he found new, yet familiar. A memory of his father entering their small home, dragging his feet across the threshold as fatigue weighed him down flashed before Elijah’s eyes.
“My father’s curse…” He looked down his legs. His clothes hung heavy with blood. With eyes closed, he said, “I’m just like him.”
Elijah felt warm tears roll down his face.
The cot shifted, and Elijah surmised that the rabbi had stood. “We need to decide what to do, Elijah. Yes, you are afflicted just as your father. And like your father it will only end in death. But Martín Yáñez’s northmen will not relent with his intolerance. We need assistance such as–”
“No. He can’t control himself.” His uncle’s voice. After their parents died, he raised Elijah and his only brother. Where was his body? Why wasn’t it here so he could attend it? Did they not trust him even with his dead brother’s body?
“But he saved us all.”
“Who gave him that blade?”
“This will only lead to sorrow and shame.”
“We need fighters. Good ones.”
“He can’t be trusted.”
“I didn’t kill the Moor.” Elijah’s voice skittered around the room, silencing the growing storm.
“What?” The rabbi spoke for them all.
“The Moor that saved me, that fought for us. He came to me when I was…afflicted…and demanded I stop. I had the urge to slice his head off, but I didn’t.”
“Lucky for him.”
“No.” Elijah opened his eyes and stood. He took in a deep breath, knowing that what he said next would either save or damn him, or maybe both. “I can control it. With training, I can be of use.”
“He can join Yūsuf’s army. If the Moor saved Elijah’s life, is it not their custom to take responsibility for that life? They are camped not too far from here. Send him to them. Let the Moors with their angry god handle this affliction. I want none of it here,” Elijah’s uncle said as he gathered the potter’s daughter to him as if to protect her from Elijah.
Elijah looked to the man who raised him. The tears that filled his eyes moments before overfilled their bounds. He wiped at his face, wondering how quickly a man he thought he loved could so easily go against him. What had he done out there? He remembered killing the man on the horse, but little else until the Moor demanded that he stop.
The Moor had somehow been able to release the rage inside him with one word. He remembered how once it took six men to subdue his father after one of his own bouts. Everyone would be safer if he joined the Moor’s cause and defend Granada’s northern border.
Tucked on a small tributary of the Rio Genil, the Jewish alcove of Moclín were often at odds with their Moorish rulers, but they knew how to tolerate each other. The Christians only wanted to see every Jew dead or converted; taking up Granada’s defense would help them both. And it was clear he was unwanted here. Besides, a warrior’s death would be better than what his father endured.
“I’ll go,” he said, and it was settled.
* * *
Tahir Shia-Agil watched Elijah spar with two younger boys. Sunlight beat upon them all as they practiced in the stone courtyard in one of Tahir’s training yards. Sweat ran down Elijah’s tanned, muscled back and soaked the top of his britches. Slicing their scimitars through the morning air, the young lads where making the Jew work to defend himself with his short sword. But his face remained calm; a mask of serenity that belied the monster that hid within.
Tahir had only seen the monster come out three times since Elijah had joined the Caliph’s army, and never during practice. He need not worry for the boy’s lives, but still, Tahir watched carefully.
After almost a year of defending the Moorish border, the Caliph himself had heard of Elijah’s battle hunger and success. A message had been sent: Elijah was to present himself to the Caliph for an honor.
But before that could happen, he needed a bath.
Lifting his fingers to his mouth, Tahir discharged a whistle that froze the warrior’s movements. They bowed to each other, and Elijah spun towards Tahir.
Tahir motioned for him to join him under the blossoming orange trees that lined the courtyard. Elijah trotted over, snatching up his tunic that lay at the edge of the central yard.
Tahir returned the greeting.
“What pulls you away from the royal palace? Are we to be sent out again?”
“Castille’s dogs have been satiated with enough of our blood for now. You’ve done your part to protect what is left of Granada. But I suspect we’ll be fighting the Christians again soon enough, but not today. Are you so ready to bath in their blood again?”
Elijah looked away with a slight shake to his head. “You know I don’t.”
No. Tahir knew that. The Jew only wanted to see his home again, but the last time he had tried to go back, his battle-hungry reputation preceded him. His uncle had refused to acknowledge Elijah ever existed, saying that no one in his family would forsaken their faith so easily, and taken up the sword with such gusto.
Though Tahir encouraged Granada’s warriors to convert to Islam, the Caliph did not require it. At least, not during the pitched battles to save the shrinking realm. So Elijah had kept his own counsel and prayed to his own gods. His uncle was wrong to accuse Elijah of converting, but Elijah had taken up wearing a turban while fighting. It had made it easier for his fellow warriors to distinguish him from the Christians, but thus was the reason many thought he adopted all the Arab’s customs, including their religion. But he had only taken up the sword. After that first day near Moclín, Tahir hadn’t seen the ivory and gold-hilted blade far from Elijah. Tahir believed he slept with it.
“You need a bath.”
Elijah glanced at him, and then sniffed his arm pit. “It’s not any worse than usual.”
Tahir quelled the snort of laughter that threatened to erupt. “This is serious. The Caliph, King Yūsuf Abū’ l-Hajjāj the second, requests your presence. You will bathe. And ask the steward for perfumed water.” A smirk spread across his face. “You’ll need it.” He turned to leave.
“Wait. Why me?”
Tahir didn’t look back, but said, “Your sword.”
* * *
Elijah could tell it was her. Though she wore a servant’s thicker hijāb, her smooth, sensual gait gave her away. She walked across the slick, tiled floor with a small flask cradled in her hands. Knelling at the edge of the pool, she pored a dram of the thick essence into his bath.
Naked, he turned in the hot pool, his face red from the steam and now his shame. The scent of lavender engulfed him.
“What are you doing here.”
There was a pause in the air about him. He glanced over his shoulder at Tahir’s daughter, Zorah. Maybe he was wrong. Maybe it was just another one of the bath-girls. A quick look into her dark eyes told him he was not wrong.
Only large enough for one man, the sunken bath was too small to allow him some modesty with distance. She was so close, he could smell her sweet jasmine scent mix with the lavender. He feared he would say or do something wrong as he always did in her presence.
“You shouldn’t be here,” he said.
“There are some who say the same thing about you.” He heard her dip something into the water, and lavender-infused water ran down his head.
He looked over his shoulder. She had pulled back her shawl, exposing her smooth, brown arm. Dipping her hand into the water, she reached over the small space between them to wet his head. Turning away from her, he backed up closer to her for fear she might over-extend and end in the pool with him.
When would the young woman learn? She couldn’t keep throwing herself at him. Already her father, Tahir, had forbade she step within the same room as Elijah. He had to berate her before all the servants. “He’s a Jew, Zorah, and a commoner. I forbid you from mooning after him.”
But at every opportunity, she thwarted her father’s efforts to keep her away from Elijah. Now that the fighting was over, it was getting worse. And though Elijah only wanted to honor Tahir’s wishes, he couldn’t help but feel elated when she succeeded.
Dropping his head back, he closed his eyes and allowed Zorah to pour lavender-water on his forehead. She used both hands this time, and caressed his face and ears. Goosebumps tingled over his flesh despite the warmth of the bath and his feelings for her.
He couldn’t pinpoint the moment he fell in love with her. It had happened sometime after the first time she made him laugh, and the first time he caught her with her veil down. Her beauty lived up to her name; she was as fresh as a spring dawn. If he could, he would carry her off to some distant land where they could live in peace together without the constraint of culture and religion. But he couldn’t, so he would do with these few stolen moments. He’d just hoped Tahir would marry her off soon before something serious happened between them. Elijah didn’t think he could restrain himself for long, though at the moment he was managing rather well.
“You are to see the Caliph?” she asked.
Elijah moaned something akin to a “Yes.”
“Do you know why?”
He turned towards her, crossing his arms on the tiled lip of the bath. Zorah sat adjacent to him, crossing her legs before her, still close enough to run her hand across his shoulders. She had allowed her face veil to fall across her shoulders.
“No. Wait. Yes, sometime about my sword. But I’m sure you will tell me I’m wrong.”
She huffed. “Someone has to correct the way you mangle our language. And my father doesn’t have the heart to tell you when you’ve made a mistake on the sparring grounds.”
“I don’t make mistakes. Every now and then I have to let your brothers win.” He winked at her, and she splashed water into his face. Skirting his arm across the water’s top, he drenched her with his bath water. She stifled a scream, and stood up. Laughing, Elijah drunk in the sight of her. The soaked garment clung to her breasts and hips.
“How dare you! My father will kill you!”
He laughed harder. “For what? Dragging you in here?”
She turned to leave.
“No, Zorah, don’t leave. I’m sorry. Please come back.”
Stopping a few paces out, she turned back towards him with a sparkle in her eye that made Elijah’s heart skip a beat. “If you want me, come get me.”
With only the barest of pauses, Elijah lifted himself out of the water and strode towards her. Her eyes widen, but she kept as still as a frightened doe. He placed his hands on her arms, and resisted the urge to press his body into hers. Instead he kissed her lightly on her cheek, her closed eyes, and then her lips. Pressing his cheek against hers, he whispered, “You know I want you.”
She pushed him away, wrapping her arms about her as if she were cold. “You won’t make a whore of me.”
He frowned. “I wouldn’t think of it.”
She took another step away from him towards the open door to the bath house, her gaze frantic until it settled on his hips. If someone went by they could easily see the two of them. Elijah wondered how long it would take Tahir to slice his throat at a presumed transgression.
“I think your thoughts are very clear at the moment. You may not be able to control yourself.”
He was naked before her, and couldn’t hide his desire, but did she really think he couldn’t control himself? How much did she know of his battle rages? He yet again did the wrong thing with her. Turning on his heel, he went back to his bath. As he heard her slam the door behind her, he wondered what she had wanted to tell him.
* * *
Yūsuf had arranged to hold court with Elijah at the edge of his mirror pool, under an arched patio that lead into the palace. The water reflected the deep blue sky and the sliver of moon that heralded the cool evening to come. It held a peace that Elijah felt he would never find for himself.
He’d come in the finest clothes he could borrow from Tahir’s sons; a white silk shirt and pants. He managed to find a jeweled studded scabbard that befitted his sword, and slung that across his hips with a belt of interwoven leather strips. A long length of red silk had been placed in his room. He had wrapped it about his head in the manner that Tahir had taught him. As he walked through the palace’s great room and passed beneath the ornate arched doorway, his silk pants shimmered across his thighs, reminding him of Zorah’s touch earlier in the day. He bit down on his tongue to keep from thinking about her.
With a group of men and guards about him, the Caliph literally shimmered next to the pool. He wore a shirt made of pure gold.
“Ah, the great Jew warrior deigns to grace us with his visage. Did you lose yourself with the bath-house girls?” The Caliph spoke directly to Elijah.
He frowned and stopped a few paces from the group. Bowing as he had been shown just moments before, he said, “Pardon me, my lord, I did not know His Grace waited upon me. I will make you wait no more. I am here.”
“Yes, you are.” He raised his arms. “How do you like the gift my brethren have given me.” He turned in a slow circle for Elijah to admire him.
“A gift worthy of Your Grace, my lord.”
“Yes. I think so, too. This, along with our hard victories, has put me in a good mood. I have decided to bestow a gift.”
Elijah stayed silent, but his mind raced. A title. Maybe some land. He tried to banish the far-reaching thoughts that entered his mind. He concentrated on the men about Yūsuf. Tahir, a nobleman in his own right, stood among them, his face as stern and unmoving as the hours before a battle. He recognized a few of the others as men of Arab learning, but none that he knew personally. One of the guards had been at the battle of La Higueruela. He was best suited for close fighting. It made sense to see him here. As he scanned the group, his eyes caught sight of a bit of red moving back along a corridor leading into the palace. He squinted, but couldn’t make out what it was, but most likely one of Yūsuf’s harem.
“Are all your men so stunned by gifts they stand mute, Tahir? Maybe John of Castille should have showered them with gold and silver. We would have lost just as much land but without all that blood.”
Tahir coughed, and Elijah met the Caliph’s gaze. “My lord, so stunned by your generosity, I thought it best to keep silent lest this be a dream the evening wind could carry away.”
The Caliphate laughed. “That is so. Life is fickle, Elijah Cruz, but my gifts are not. Tahir sings your praises each time I allow him to open his mouth. He suggests I name you a lord of Granada, and give you a small district south along the coast to protect and manage. The locals are complaining about the new northern neighbors, driven south by the Christians. Your skills with that sword would help, and so would your diplomatic nature. Tahir tells me you have made many friends among his clan. But the only way a Jew could hold such a title is if you convert to Islam.”
Elijah’s mind raced. A conversion? This is my gift? He tried to think of something to say that wouldn’t insult the men before him.
“Or you could marry a Muslim.”
A lump caught in Elijah’s throat. “My lord?”
Tahir stepped forward, a small smile on his face. With a nod of his head, he said, “I offer Zorah.”
Elijah’s heart skipped a beat, and then thumped in his chest. A smile spread across his face as Tahir came towards him to give him an embrace that could crack the ribs of a bear. Words of praise and congratulations were exchanged, but Elijah couldn’t remember them all. Yūsuf signed a decree that ceded Elijah lands, a title, and a wife. He hardly heard any of the words he said to bid his leave of His Grace, but he found himself walking with Tahir back through the palace. Their steps bounced along the polished tiles and high, mosaic-ceiling, but he felt like he walked on air.
A flash of red caught his attention, and he stopped. Zorah glided towards them, covered in a red silk hijāb that perfectly matched the color of his turban. He took one step towards her, and froze.
The memory of his mother’s wails and screams for mercy pierced his elation.
The scroll in his hand trembled. He looked down at it, his vision dimmed, and the events of the last night he spent with his father threatened to spill the contents of his stomach. He swallowed hard, knowing that marrying Zorah would be his greatest sin.
He turned to Tahir, muttered an apology, and ran.
* * *
“You are acting like a fool.” Tahir wrenched the saddle from Elijah’s hands. “And have broken Zorah’s heart.” In the close quarters of the horse stall, Elijah could not reach around Tahir to snatch the saddle back.
Better her heart break now, he thought.
“Fine. I don’t need the saddle.” He bent for a blanket lumped in the straw bedding, shook it out, and placed it on the horse’s back. Making his way to the tack hung on the stall’s wall, he tried to ignore the fierce scorn coming from Tahir.
“Do you think you can insult my family this way? The Caliph?”
Elijah stopped, and looked to Tahir. How could he insult this man who taught him how to wield a sword, and how to tame the beast within him? He could no more insult him than he could visit ruin on his family.
“You don’t understand.”
Tahir grabbed the bridle from Elijah’s hands. “Tell me. You owe her that much.”
Elijah’s looked out the open door of the horse barn. Blue light filled the dirt courtyard beyond. The sun’s rays would not crest the horizon for some time. Time enough for him to gather his few belongings, and make a run for the mountain forests in the east.
He had managed to hide in a brothel’s cellar for the night, and he thought he had out-waited Tahir’s guards, but he ran into the blustery man as soon he came out of the room with his gear. He had wanted his wool tunic and breeches. The silk wouldn’t last long where he intended to go.
“Tahir, the last thing I want to do is insult you. And Zorah moves the blood in my veins. Without her, it will cease to flow. But I can not accept these gifts, nor her hand in marriage. I will only visit ruin on your family.”
“Do you fear the rage inside you? That is gone. You have banished it with the family that disowned you. Besides, it is only it battle that it might rear its head. As long as you don’t intend to turn against us, there is nothing to fear.”
Elijah had no desire to see his family again. Anyone he cared for was already dead. He never felt at peace with his people or their religion, or any religion for that matter, so it made no difference to him which side he fought. But the Christians killed his brother and plagued his people for centuries, he had no love for them. His place lay with Granada or south across the sea.
Dawn began to light the courtyard, and pale light filtered into the barn. Elijah could make out the concern etched on Tahir’s face. He owed him the truth.
“I fear my love for you all.”
“Why on earth should you?”
He took a deep breath. “My father’s curse has been in our family for generations. My great, grandfather is a hero among my people. He defended our village from each passing horde – Christian or Muslim – for years till he died an old man’s death in his bed. As each generation passed, the rage that gave my forebears strength and clarity in battle, grew and intensified in at least one of their offspring. It became…uncontrollable.”
“Every man loses himself in battle, Elijah. You’ve seen enough of that to know its truth.”
“Yes, but would they visit that evil upon their loved ones?”
“Of course not. And you wouldn’t either.”
“My father did. After a trip across Granada’s old border to protect a neighbor’s merchant caravan, my father came back convinced my mother had sinned against him. He hacked her to pieces as she begged for her life. He would have done the same with me and my brother if my uncle and neighbors hadn’t come in time to distract him. Two men died trying to tame him. They slit his throat before he could kill anyone else.”
A gasp spun them both around towards the door. Zorah stood silhouetted by dawn’s light, her hands covered her mouth.
Elijah groaned, and turned back towards the horse, taking the bridle from Tahir’s limp hands. He never said the right thing in front of that woman, why should it be any different now? He pulled the patient horse from its stall and bent to gather the saddle Tahir had placed on the floor.
Soft hands pressed along his shoulder. He lifted the saddle, using it as a shield. She ignored it. Wrapping her arms around his neck, she pulled him down and said, ” You’re not your father.”
Elijah tossed the saddle to the side, and hugged her to him. Tahir embraced them both.
After a time, Elijah pulled away from them.
“I know. I’m not my father, but I can’t risk it. If you marry me, the beast will be there, waiting for an opportunity.”
“Love conquers the most hellish of creatures, Elijah. You will not be alone in your struggle. And Zorah speaks the truth. You are not your father. With training and discipline, you have banished your demons,” Tahir said.
“I have seen it,” Zorah said. “The other day when you sparred with my cousin. He nearly broke your knee with a sly kick, and an horrendous howl escaped you. But you only retreated to rest. You have beaten it!”
They continued to list examples that showed Elijah’s grace and calm under duress. Elijah’s heart sank and lifted with each of their stories as he listened to them. Could they be right? Would making a new life for himself with the Arabs break his family’s curse?
“And just yesterday in the bath house?” Zorah said.
“The bath house?” Tahir looked askance at his daughter.
Elijah didn’t want to explain that to his future father-in-law, and interrupted her. “Enough! Yes. I think you may be right. With my father’s death, and your training, Tahir, my curse has been lifted.”
He looked to his new family with a quaking heart. Though he doubted the truth of his words, he would dare to love them. Taking the sword he stole a year ago, he placed it in Tahir’s hands. He would get a new, untainted sword. One worthy of a lord.