Okay everyone, I've made you wait long enough. Here is the final chapter of "A Stranger from the East." I've been heading towards his chapter since July, and to be honest, it really doesn't feel like it's been too much work as I've enjoyed myself so much. Oddly enough, this story is about as long as my thesis - only my thesis took me two years to write! Go figure...
Just so you know: the very last sentence of this fic was the very first sentence I wrote for it, and I've been waiting since July for you all to read it!
Chapter Fifteen: The Grave
Djaq awoke slowly, letting herself gradually drift back to consciousness. When she opened her eyes, she realised that the sun had risen and that the morning was late. She pulled herself upright reluctantly, feeling as though she could easily sleep for another few hours, but she'd already noticed that Will and Allan were gone. Rising to her feet she gazed around uncertainly, and then moved passed the King Oak and to the clearing in which she'd stood her ground the night before.
Sure enough, there they were, fussing over the two newly acquired horses. To her relief, she noticed that the bodies of their former owners were gone. She wasn't squeamish, but burying the corpses of the men who had tried to use her secret against her would have perhaps been too much, even for her. Will ushered her over and offered her a handful of berries and nuts that the two of them had no doubt been scrounging for in the forest all morning. She hungrily devoured the meal provided for her, disregarding all the manners that had been instilled in her since her youth, and gave a small sigh when finished.
"There's a stream that way," Allan told her, pointing with a nod of his head, and she eagerly slipped away.
A few minutes later, she crouched at the bank of a small stream and splashed the cold water on her face, letting some of the grime wash away. Then cupping her hands, she drank her fill, her most recent brush with death once again making her relish the senses of her body interacting with the world around her. In this case, the feel of icy water as it slipped down her throat, the bite of it on her tongue, the way it made her teeth ache as its coldness swirled around them.
Finally she sat back, and breathed another deep sigh of relief, shutting her eyes and turning her face to the sun. She felt safe for the first time in a long, long time. Opening her eyes again, she surveyed the scene around her.
The tiny stream gushed over a rocky bed; the banks were covered in soft grass, and the trees around her stood still and sturdy like protective sentinels. It was peaceful, and very, very quiet. Yes – this was a good place.
Carefully she began collecting rocks, taking several large ones scattered at the base of a nearby stone outcropping, and a few tiny ones from the bottom of the stream itself. Finally she had a reasonably-sized pyramid of stones stacked up on the shore that bore the slight resemblance of a gravestone. Kneeling in front of it, she used a collection of pebbles to form the shape of a cross upon the reasonably flat surface of the topmost stone. That done, balanced back on the soles of her feet, feeling as though the memorial was inadequate. There was nothing she could do to the grave to make it Thomas's. No sign or possession or token to dedicate it to him. No proof that a boy called Thomas who had travelled to the Holy Land, remained cloistered in a small room for many months and then died in the desert on his way home had ever existed at all.
Absentmindedly, she pulled a red scarf from her pocket; Khalid's final gift to her. As she fingered it thoughtfully, she cast her mind back to the events of the previous day.
The door shut quietly behind her, and there he was, not five steps away. He was facing the window that looked out over Nottingham, seated at a small desk and writing in a ledger. He looked exactly as she remembered him: strong, handsome features, hawk-like eyes, dark oiled hair. Just as he'd looked on the long-ago day when her father had first presented her to him.
It didn't seem possible that he was real – that anything from home had survived what she'd escaped. A part of her had believed that everything from her past had been as burnt as thoroughly as her home. That everything was irretrievably lost to her. Yet there he was, real and alive and right in front of her.
He didn't look up, merely glanced in her direction at the sound of the door closing.
"Ah, you're back. Could you bring me some water?"
He spoke in Arabic, and she closed her eyes, letting the sound of her own language dance over her. When she opened her eyes again, he was still writing, and for a moment she simply drunk in the sight of him. He looked utterly out of place here. His foreign clothes, his dark skin, his carefully groomed hair and beard, his glinting jewellery - everything about him looked alien in this small and dismal room. She shook her head sadly. He needed to go home.
"Did you hear me?" he said again as she made no move to obey his order. She was struck dumb as she realised the truth of Allan's incredulous disbelief: that her entire plan up until this point was to simply ask him to go away. Politely. She didn't have the slightest idea of what to say.
Finally he looked up and gazed at her blankly.
"You're not Nasir," he said, and rose from the desk. "Who are you?"
She opened her mouth, but nothing emerged. He approached her, taking in her filthy clothing, her baggy vest; the sword belted around her waist, her dirt-streaked face and cropped head of hair. His mouth fell open, and he too was rendered speechless as realisation dawned upon his face.
"Safiyah?" he finally gasped. She nodded, and for what seemed like a long time he simply looked at her, completely agape.
"How…how did you get here?" he finally managed.
She took a deep breath. Where was she supposed to start? With Will and Allan? Robin Hood? Brooker? Thomas? Her family? She spluttered for a while, her story stumbling on the way to its own telling. She shook her head helplessly. At once his hand was on her shoulders, leading her forward, sitting her down on his chair. The scent of him – musky and spicy and achingly familiar – almost overpowered her.
"Safiyah, Safiyah," he was muttering. "Thank Allah you're safe."
He kneeled at her feet and kissed her left hand while she snuffled into her right. Once she composed herself, she gazed into his face.
"How did you know I was here?" she croaked.
"Bassam," he said simply. "He told me about Thomas – the Crusader you wanted to accompany to Acre."
She winced to hear disapproval in his voice.
"He told me of your plan – that you were to send a pigeon with a message to him once you had completed your task. But when the pigeon returned home without any sign from you, Bassam came to me. There had been rumours of slave-traders on the desert route to Acre. Englishmen taking advance of the war in order to benefit their trade, picking off pilgrims and merchants as they travelled. It was easy to guess what had happened to you. I travelled to Acre myself and heard of a recent slave ship travelling to England. It was the only slave ship that had set out in the past week, so I charted passage with my men and followed you here."
"All that way…" she murmured.
"I found the man responsible for your captivity – a man called Brooker. A few coins passed around the unsavoury men of the docks, and he was easy enough to find. Before he died, he told me of Robin Hood. How he'd freed you and the other Saracens, how he lived in the forest and stole from the rich to give to the poor. I organised a group of men to take tribute to the sheriff, hoping to draw Hood out of hiding, and sure enough, he took the bait."
"You wanted him to help you find me…" she realised.
"I thought that between Hood in the forest and the sheriff in the castle, I'd track you down soon enough. How difficult could it be for a Saracen to hide in a place like this? But I had no idea that Robin would grant you sanctuary with him."
"Is he alright?" she asked. "I was separated from him the night you arrived. When your men used black powder."
Khalid gave a small smile.
"Just some scare tactics. I didn't think a little display of our fire-power would do any harm. And Hood is fine. He told me all about you – that you'd been living in the forest quite happily, but that he'd help me find you again."
She felt downcast, her worst fears on Robin's attitude toward her predicament realised. All her work, all her effort, and he still was willing to hand her back to her own people. If it hadn't been for Allan's secret cave, he probably would have found her and escorted her back to Khalid days ago.
"After that I came here," Khalid continued. "Made myself known to the sheriff and sent my men out to the villages to ask for help. Many had seen you already, told me about the work you'd been doing. "The Saracen physician" they're calling you."
He gave her a knowing smile.
"Compared with their own primitive witch-doctors, it's only natural that they should think a few simple Eastern remedies would make you a physician."
She shrugged, knowing it was best not to tell him that she was in fact a physician in every sense of the word.
"But I should have known a woman like you would find her way back to me," he finished, clasping her knees and casting her an awestruck look. "I'll have Nasir head back to the port tonight. Book us passage home. Or…no, let's all go. I'm tired of this place, though probably not as much as you are. We'll all go. I'll send for the servants now."
Despite his cheerful words, he couldn't take his grim-filled eyes off her face or hair: they shocked him terribly. She'd seen this sort of thing before, the way some people would make polite conversation with somebody's terrible wound instead of their face, unable to tear their eyes away from the deformity. He rose to his feet, leaning over to kiss her forehead and then turned to the door, efficient and restless, as she'd always known him to be. There was no other way to tell him, so she simply said it, before things became even worse.
"I'm not going."
He turned. "Of course. You're exhausted. We'll rest here tonight – or, for as long as you need to regain your strength. I'll have some clothes made for you. I'm sure the castle seamstresses can make you a proper garment."
"No," she said again, feeling her voice weaken under the longing she felt – the desire to simply yield herself to his care, to listen to his voice and follow his orders and never have to look after herself ever again.
"No. I'm not going home. I'm staying here. In England."
He looked at her, her words utterly meaningless to him. He could only shake his head, and again she struggled for words. She already knew that she could not explain herself fully – that many of her reasons and ideas would be inconceivable to him. How did she tell him that she was not only no longer Safiyah, but that even the Safiyah he thought he'd known had possessed secret recesses of knowledge and experience that were entirely foreign to his idea of her.
"You're in shock…"
She shook her head.
"No. I'm staying. I can't go with you Khalid."
"Your hair does not bother me. It will grow back. And you will feel better in a veil. There is no shame in this – in disguising yourself as a boy. I understand why you did it."
She shook her head again, fighting tears of frustration and grief, and once again he misinterpreted.
"Are you…did someone…" He took a deep breath. "Safiyah, such things do not matter to me. If you…are no longer a maid, it is not your fault. I will not mention such things after we are married."
He moved close to her and stroked her hair gently, his voice heavy, and for a moment she thought his misguided kindness would kill her.
"It's not that," she told him, looking down at her knees. "I can't marry you."
There was silence.
"Are you in love with Robin Hood?" he asked, and she tried not to roll her eyes. Men it seemed, were often oblivious to the fact that a woman could do more with her life than fall in love. That such things as freedom and responsibility and honour – things that weren't supposed to matter to women – were now the most important concepts that she'd ever known.
"No," she said firmly.
"Then why?" he asked, flabbergasted, and for a second she almost smiled, realising why Robin had reminded her so much of him. It was his inability to envision any reason why a woman would not want to marry him.
"Because I must stay here."
There was a short intake of breath laced with impatience.
She took a shuddering breath, casting her mind back to the beginning. She began to speak, starting with Djaq (in a way, it had all begun with Djaq) and the secret swordfights in the hidden courtyard. Her father's frustration with his only son and the consequential lessons to his daughter in the darkened surgery. The arrival of Thomas under the cover of darkness and the secret conversations that had followed. The terrible day in which she was told Djaq would not coming home, and the night that followed soon after in which she knew she would not be returning home either. Then came Bassam's house, the desert and the decision she'd made there, the floating strands of her hair across the dunes, the blade of a knife buried in a white neck, the chaos and whiz of arrows as white men had bourn down on them…but nothing of the slave ship. She would never speak of that again, not to anyone, not ever. The shores of England, Brooker's greed, the trees of Sherwood, and finally her freedom won by a group of ragged, coarse and rather ill-smelling outlaws.
When she was done, he gaped at her, like he'd never before seen her in his life. She touched his face sadly and he brushed her hand aside – not roughly or angrily, but automatically, just as any one would shy away from a stranger's touch. What else could she say? It was her story but not her explanation, and she had told it more for her own sake than for his.
"Thomas was coming back to England to fight for peace. To tell people about the Holy War and that we were not the barbarians everyone thought we were. I failed him by not delivering him home to do this task, and now…for him I must stay and do what I can." She sighed, and twisted her hands in her lap. "Our marriage would have secured an alliance between households. But here…here I can work toward peace between countries."
Khalid shook his head. "That is not for you to do. It's too dangerous…"
"It is my choice."
She'd never had a choice before, but in this small room, looking at the last remainder of her past, her last chance to go home, she knew she was making the most important one of her life. She was staying, whether Robin or Khalid liked it or not.
She recalled her youthful confusion at her first meeting with Khalid, knowing him to have everything a woman could possibly want in a husband: wealth, status, charm, looks…and knowing in the next breath that she cared for none of it. She knew she could have loved him eventually, or at least, that Safiyah could have, but that it would have been a love born out of a sense of duty and a desire to please. And Djaq could not live that way anymore.
"You came so far for me – it was more than I deserve. But – I can't be your wife. I'm not able to do that anymore."
There was nothing more to say, but she stayed with him for while longer. Even though her decision was made, she was not eager to leave the room whilst the choice still existed, not wanting to inexorably lock the door just yet on what she'd always known. Finally though, it was time to go. Allan and Will were still waiting for her, and they still had to figure out a way to escape the castle. It didn't occur to her to ask Khalid for help.
To her relief, he did not try to stop her from leaving, and so she turned from passage home forever.
Halfway to the door, he called out suddenly.
"Safiyah – your friend Thomas. Was he rather short? Was he wearing blue Saracen clothes when he died?"
She nodded, baffled.
Khalid nodded sadly, and pulled a red cloth out of his pocket.
"We found his remains on the way to Acre. When my men searched him, we found this. It was draped over his belt, hidden under his clothing. I don't know why I kept it…it seemed familiar somehow. Perhaps it was meant for you. If it was his – maybe you would like to keep it."
He shrugged helplessly, confused at his own sentiment, but she took the offered scarf as though it was precious gold.
Djaq had wanted it, but not because it had once been Thomas's. It was because it was hers – the remains of the very turban she had worn for so many hours when disguised as Djaq under her father's tutelage. How it had come to be in Thomas's possession, she would never know.
But it was an odd place for Thomas to have kept it – tied to his belt like that. It reminded her of the stories he'd used to tell her in the quiet darkness of her father's surgery. Stories about how a knight would carry his lady's favour into battle in remembrance of her.
Almost as though…as if he'd…that perhaps…
The unforeseen possibility was almost beyond her comprehension, stunning her so much that she raised a shaky hand to her hair. Surely he hadn't guessed. And yet how else would the discarded turban have gone from the sand at her feet to the buckle of his belt?
She settled down, realising with a pang that she would never know the truth now. There were so many things she'd never know. She'd never know the circumstances of her father's death. She'd never know the name of the disfigured slave-trader who had fed her like a child and saved her life on the shores of England. She'd never know whether her mother had died for her sake, or in mindless rage and grief. She'd never know who it was her brother had planned to marry on his triumphant return home. She'd never know why there was war or suffering or grief in the world, or why Allah had chosen to carry her all this way to fight in this particular battle against poverty and pestilence and corruption.
Looking down on the makeshift grave and tucking the scarf into a crevice between two of the rocks, she promised herself that she would be proof of his existence, following on in his wishes and working toward a peace that she knew was possible, for it had existed between the two of them.
Here she would stay and fight for all their sakes. Unbeknownst to her family during their lifetimes, they had each given her the tools she would need to be of use to Robin Hood's cause. She was worth nothing back home – her father's skills as a physician, her brother's use of the sword, even her face would have to be hidden away forever. But here the gifts that her family had bestowed on her could be used in the struggle for peace, and in doing so she could honour their memory – make them live on every time she stitched a wound or dispatched a guard. Maybe even one day she'd get the chance to use her mother's charms and graces to their full effect. Maybe.
Allan and Will were mounted on the horses when she returned, play-arguing about which one had laid claim to the best mount. She approached, sharing in their light-heartedness, till she realised that she'd have to ride behind one of them in the impending search for the other outlaws. Grudgingly – and knowing she'd feel like a sack of potatoes stuck behind one of them for what could be hours on end – she headed toward Will who was closer.
But before she reached him, Allan manoeuvred his mare in front of Will and reached down to grab her hand. Since it hardly made a difference, she accepted it, and let herself be hoisted up behind him, looping her arms around his waist.
"Horses will make quick work of finding the others!" he told them both cheerfully. "Much better than traipsing around a forest all morning!"
Will simply grunted in response, and Djaq started at his surly demeanour, wondering at the sudden change from the laughter of a few moments before. Oh well, she thought as Allan began to canter toward the forest path, he's obviously not a morning person.
As the day wore on and the horses carried the three of them across the forest, Djaq began to drowse a little, unintentionally letting her forehead drift onto Allan's shoulder. It was more than physical exhaustion, it was strength of her mind and spirit that still had to be reclaimed, but till that happened, a small part of her was glad that she could simply let herself be carried for a while.
In her strange half-sleep she heard snatches of her mother's lullaby, but it was only when the horse below her made a slight lunge over a hillock – causing her to jolt upright – that she realised the sound of the tune wasn't coming from her own mind. Ahead of her, Allan was humming softly to himself, his blue eyes raking the trees as they travelled. Startled, she tried to catch a better glimpse of his expression. Was he using the song on purpose, or was he simply echoing the remnant of a memory he didn't know he had?
She risked a glance at Will, the question in her eyes, and Will looked back at her impassively for a moment before shaking his head. Allan had no idea what he was doing, and a silent agreement passed between the two of them that they wouldn't embarrass him by telling him the source of the song in his head.
Finally, the three travellers arrived at the outlaw's westernmost campsite, crashing into the small clearing and causing Much to nearly jump out of his skin. Djaq cast a glance over the unfamiliar surroundings, taking in a now delighted-looking Much, a relived John (who quickly turned a suspicious glare to Will and Allan) and an amused Robin – as well as Khalid and his assortment of travelling companions and servants, milling about the clearing.
Her heart began to pound as she took in the sight. The Saracens were clearly getting ready to leave, their horses saddled and their bags slung over shoulders or pack animals. Judging from their distance from the others, Robin and Khalid had been having a quiet discussion, and as she dismounted, Robin gave her a speculative glance. Surely Khalid hadn't come to Robin to ask him for his help in forcing Djaq to return with him. Surely Robin wouldn't insist that she leave for the Holy Land. She unconsciously place a hand on her sword, bracing herself – but in the next moment she was pounced upon by Much, who shook her shoulders gleefully.
"I was worried!" he cried, and then – realising his own excitement – dropped his hands and moved back. "Not much though. A little."
She gave him a small smile, but quickly turned an anxious look to the approaching Robin and Khalid. Once again she was struck by the strangeness of Khalid's presence here – somehow he looked even more out of place in the forest than he did at the castle – and a thousand memories of her girlhood suddenly swarmed before her eyes. For so long, Safiyah's only goal had been to make this man fall in love with her, exercising all her charm and appeal on him in the hopes of a marriage proposal. Her father had been pleased when Khalid had approached him with a proposition, her mother almost beside herself with pride and joy. And now…now all she wanted was to be treated like a man.
"I'm not going," she said suddenly, more to Robin than to Khalid.
Robin gave a small laugh, Khalid shook his head sadly.
"I did not come here for that. I came to say goodbye to Robin and to thank him for his courtesy."
She shuffled her feet, embarrassed. After a few moments, Khalid cleared his throat.
"May I speak?" he asked her, and drew her away from the others. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Allan and Will watching them closely. Then Allan turned to Robin and began to speak, no doubt telling him where they'd been for the past few days. Will kept his eyes on Djaq as Robin took his turn in speaking, no doubt informing them who Khalid was exactly, and what he'd meant to Djaq.
When Khalid had her alone, he turned his helpless eyes to her.
"Are you sure, Safiyah?"
She took a deep breath. In saying goodbye to him, she was saying goodbye to her homeland, to safety and security, to a future of prosperity, wifehood and perhaps, one day, children. A part of her knew that she would eventually want those things. Not yet, but eventually, when she felt her task in this country had been completed. And if she didn't go with him now, she might very well loose that chance forever.
There's still time, a little voice said, but her feet stood as firm as the roots of an oak. Here is where she would stay. Back there, she'd been a physician when it pleased her father, a woman when it pleased her mother, a sparring partner for her brother's sake. Then she'd become a slave, and become nothing at all. But now, having made her first real choice in the way her life was to be lived, she had a chance to find out who she really was. Though she was no closer to discovering who she was than she was at the start of her journey, she knew that here she'd have a better chance of finding out.
The thought was as exhilarating and terrifying as having her unveiled face looked upon by five Englishmen every day, all of whom knew that she was a woman.
"Yes, I'm sure," she told him.
"But…but…they're English," he spluttered, flailing in hands in a final show of disbelief.
It was those words more than anything that assured her that she'd made the right decision. He didn't understand her, that much was clear. She hadn't expected him to. She doubted anyone except herself would understand. But when she shook her head for the last time, Khalid finally turned to his men, yelling out commands, and moved toward Robin to shake his hand and bid him farewell.
A few minutes later the Saracens moved out of the clearing for the forest road, and the port that waited at the end of it. Khalid looked back at her once more before disappearing for good; regret, sorrow, and finally total incomprehension on his face.
She sighed deeply, and felt Robin move up to her side.
"Are you sure?" asked Robin quietly, echoing Khalid's sentiment.
"Yes," she told him. "Safiyah is dead."
"Who's Sophie?" asked Allan from behind them, effectively spoiling the moment.
She chose to ignore him. Will could explain it to him later.
"I was…I was afraid that maybe you would make me go back with him," she admitted, feeling it was best to tell Robin the truth.
His blue eyes looked startled, and he placed a hand on her shoulder, speaking loud enough so that all the outlaws could hear.
"I'd never do that. You're free here Djaq – free to come or go as you please. You should have come to me instead of gallivanting off around the country. I would have made sure Khalid understood your intentions, and I certainly wouldn't have let him drag you home against your will, if that is what you were afraid of."
"I…I…didn't think of that," she said weakly, and cringed as Robin's words hit home and Will and Allan's expressions darkened. It had just dawned on them that their entire escapade had been completely and utterly pointless. She managed to give them a guilty smile, and was desperately thankful when Robin clapped his hands heartily, bringing them all to attention.
"Well, it's nearly midday and we haven't rattled any cages yet! A little bird told me that the sheriff has a consignment of silver coming in on the North Road, and we still have the Nottingham drop-offs to make."
They scrambled around the campsite, fetching cloaks and weapons, listening as they did so to Robin's latest commands. Robin and John were off to the North Road, Much and Djaq would see to the distribution of money to the poor and Will and Allan were instructed to take the horses to Nottingham in the hopes of fetching a fair price for them. When Robin called out "let's go lads!" she straightened, finally knowing what the word meant and happy that she was a part of it.
Much bounced into step next to her as they set off into the forest, telling her that she looked unaccountably cheerful for someone who had a hard bed and no food to look forward to, and then demanding a full account of what exactly she'd been doing since last he saw her. As she began, casting her mind back to the night of the ambush in which she'd heard Khalid's regal voice floating through the darkness as if out of a dream, she was aware of Allan and Will falling into step behind her.
They were possibly still mad at the needless danger she'd put them in and the wild goose chase she'd led them on, but as she considered this, she allowed herself a small but proud smile. At least one thing had gone according to plan. After everything she'd put them through, neither one of them would ever fall in love with her now.
Well guys, that's it! I hope you found this was a satisfying ending; the end of a story is always the hardest to write because you know there's a lot of expectation riding on it. The ideas here was to give closure on her past, whilst pointing out that in many ways, this is only the beginning of her journey.
Big thank yous to the following readers for leaving some lovely comments in their wake:
Wenrom31 (especially for all her enthusiasm, and nice long reviews)
El Gringo Loco
The North Wyn
City Light Lyrics
Also thanks to those who put this story on alert: