By Kamran Pasha,
Author of Shadow of the Swords: A Novel of the Crusades
Sinai Desert -- AD 1174
The Cross burned red against the soldier's white tunic.
Red had always been her favorite color, the little girl thought. The color of roses. Of the sun as it set over the shores of the sea near her home. The color of her mother's hair.
The girl felt the steel talons of memory tearing at her heart. She had seen her mother's hair for the last time that morning, before it had been tucked away inside the modest head scarf that all good Jewish women wore in Cairo. She was too young herself to hide away her own dark locks, as the scarf would become obligatory only after her cycles began. In that, the Jews and Muslims of Egypt were of a common opinion. Although her breasts had begun to bud earlier that spring, the dark flow of menstrual blood had not yet arrived to welcome her into the fold of womanhood. She had always been impatient and had begun to pray to God that the blood would at last be released and her life would begin anew.
And today God had heard her, and granted her prayer in a way she could never have expected or wanted. For the blood that had flowed this morning was not her own, but of those whom she loved. And her life had truly begun anew in the chaos of screams and death.
They were supposed to have been safe. The coastline of Sinai was guarded by the Sultan's men. The handsome new Sultan who had swept into Cairo and overthrown its ailing king, ending the Shiite dynasty of the Fatimids and restoring Egypt to the fold of Sunni Islam. She should have been too young to understand these complex matters of state, but her father had always insisted that Jewish children should be well versed in the politics of the day. For it was the curse of her people that the changing winds of nations inevitably brought with them storms of tragedy and exile.
There had been many who had feared that the new Sultan would persecute the Jews for supporting the heretic kings who had ruled Egypt in defiance of the Caliph of Baghdad. But he had proven to be a wise man, and had reached out in friendship to the People of the Book. The Jews had found in the Sultan a patron and a protector, and her own uncle had been welcomed into the court as the ruler's personal physician.
How she wished her uncle had been with them today. Perhaps he could have saved them from the warriors of Christ who had descended on their caravan like locusts. Stanched the flow of blood from amputated limbs. Applied his special salves on the burns inflicted by flaming arrows. Maybe if he had been with them, the others would have lived.
But in her heart, the girl knew that it would have made no difference. Her uncle would have been slaughtered with the rest. And perhaps he would have been forced to endure the horror of watching his sister -- her mother -- be violated by the very monster that stalked her now.
The monster whose face was streaked in blood as bright as the Cross he bore upon his breast. In that, the girl could find some solace, some cruel satisfaction, for the blood belonged to the killer and not his victims. And it was she who had drawn it out. A tiny act of revenge, forever scarring the young man's once handsome features. Whenever he looked in the mirror, he would remember the cost of the horror he had inflicted on her family.
The warrior was coming closer to her hiding place, his broadsword held aloft, black with gore and entrails from the massacre he had unleashed. The girl pushed herself farther into the shadowy crevices of the cave. She could feel something crawling on her back. A spider, or perhaps a scorpion. For a moment she hoped it was the latter, and that its lethal sting would take her before the bloodied knight could finish what he had begun. Her loins still burned from his brutal attack, and she could smell the sickly odor of his seed drying on her thighs.
The soldier's bright eyes scanned the desert plain, like a wolf searching for a wounded lamb. Her footprints should have given her away. But the area was littered with camel tracks from another caravan that had passed the day before, and her markings were lost in the confusion of upturned earth. The red hills were rugged and lined with boulders large enough to hide a girl of her size. It would take hours to search through all the crags and crevices of this forsaken land.
He should have turned back and rejoined his men, who even now were dividing up the booty from the successful raid. The caravan had been headed to Damascus laden with bountiful items for trade -- gold and ivory from Abyssinia, beautiful woolen shawls woven by the Berber nomads to the west -- and the haul had made these murderers rich men. If her hunter had been wise, he would have forgotten a wayward little girl and focused his attention on securing his share of the wealth.
But she could see in his eyes no sign of wisdom. No sign of humanity. Just a darkness that terrified her more than the cruel sheen of his blade. It was a hatred so visceral, so pure in its ugliness, that he no longer looked like a man, but a demon that had escaped from deep within the bowels of Gehenna.
And the demon was almost upon her. She could hear him breathing, the air sounding like the hiss of a snake as it escaped his lungs. And for a second she imagined that she could even discern the terrible drum of his heart, thundering in its call for revenge.
His eyes fell upon the dark opening to the cave, the crevice covered in shadows from the heavy curtain of rocks all around. And she saw a smile cross his face, his teeth glistening in the harsh desert light.
And so the end had come. And yet somehow she felt no fear. In fact, she felt nothing at all. Her heart was empty of all emotion, and she could not even remember what it felt like to laugh or cry. All of that had been taken away from her in the horror of the attack, in watching her loved ones torn to shreds by men who saw themselves as the warriors of God. The same God that her own people believed had chosen them for a great destiny.
All the terrible stories her father had told her of her people's past had finally become real to her that day. The stories she had dismissed as tragic fables of the ancients were all true. In fact, they were the only truth for a people who had been singled out by a God that demanded a price for His love that was too great.
In that moment, as the bloodstained warrior moved closer to her tiny refuge, she hated God for choosing her people. For placing upon the Jews the curse of being special, a burden that brought with it nothing but sorrow and loss. It was because of her people that this foreigner with his pale skin and strange language even knew of the God of Abraham, and yet that knowledge had not made him a better man. Indeed, it had inflamed in him a righteous anger that brought only suffering into this world. Her people had taught mankind about God, and in return men only became devils in that God's name.
She wanted to curse God, to renounce Him even as he had renounced His own people, had expelled them from their homeland and left them to wander the world as the most hated of clans. And she would have done so, had she not seen it.
A simple stone of jade held in a silver clasp lined with sparkling beads. It had belonged to her mother, had been torn from her defiled body by this monster only an hour before. And he was wearing it around his neck like a savage trophy. At that instant, she wanted to leap out from the shadows and tear the necklace from around his throat. It would mean her death, but at least she would die holding this precious little trinket that her mother had loved so much.
The fire in her heart burned into a savage rage, and the girl curled her fingers into claws, ready to strike. She would put out this murderer's eyes with her tiny fingers, rip open his neck with her teeth like a lioness bringing down its prey. He was not a human being, and neither was she anymore. The savagery that the girl had witnessed today had ended any illusions about that. Despite the Torah's call for men to be better than the angels, the truth was all men were animals and would never be anything more. The God of her people had failed them, and now she would show Him what He had wrought.
She bent forward, her knees pressed to her chest, poised to spring as the soldier came closer to the cave. She had to move now, to leap out like a cheetah, to use the advantage of surprise to bring down her prey.
But as she prepared to move, she saw a small flash of light, like a star glittering on the man's chest. It was the necklace, the jade stone reflecting the sun in its desert fury. And then her eyes fell on the symbols carved on the jade. Four Hebrew letters -- Yod, He, Waw, He.
The Tetragrammaton.The sacred name of God.
The holy word, which could not be pronounced or spoken aloud, shimmered like an emerald against the warrior's white tunic. As she stared at those mysterious letters, the girl felt something strange happen to her. The fury that was within her subsided. And in its place, she felt a remarkable upwelling of peace and serenity. Gazing at the name of a God she no longer believed in, the girl found herself remembering all the gentle nights she had looked up at her mother as she sang them both softly to sleep. When the girl saw that necklace, that sacred stone, she suddenly felt safe again, as she had always felt resting in her mother's arms.
She leaned back, the tension in her body disappearing. The man could come inside, could take her body and her life, and ultimately it would make no difference. Her people would go on, and her name would be added as another sad yet beautiful note in her nation's song.
Strangely, considering her uncharitable feelings about the Deity, an old prayer entered her heart. She felt the words of the Shema coming to her lips, and she mouthed them silently.
Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.
The wind rose and sand swirled outside, a curtain of dust rising between her and her enemy. A sandstorm was upon them, blotting out the light of the sun.
She closed her eyes, allowed herself to fall into the shadows, to let the dark embrace her. She did not know what world she would awaken to, or if indeed there was any world beyond this one that had reached its end. But she did not care.
In silence, there was peace.
* * *
The above is an excerpt from the book Shadow of the Swords: A Novel of the Crusades by Kamran Pasha. The above excerpt is a digitally scanned reproduction of text from print. Although this excerpt has been proofread, occasional errors may appear due to the scanning process. Please refer to the finished book for accuracy.
Copyright © 2010 Kamran Pasha, author of Shadow of the Swords: A Novel of the Crusades
Kamran Pasha was a writer and producer of the highly acclaimed television shows Sleeper Cell and The Bionic Woman. He was also a writer on NBC's Kings, a modern retelling of the biblical tale of King David. Born in Pakistan, he came to the United States at the age of three, growing up in Brooklyn, New York.
For more information please visit http://www.kamranpasha.com/ and follow the author on Twitter.
I am an Amazon Associate.