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Work in Progress
Working Title: Syria635
Below is an excerpt from my Work in Progress—a historical novel set in Late Roman/Early Byzantine Syria and Sassanid Persia.
This scene takes place early in the narrative. The year is 635 AD. A Saracen army has just arrived to block the main gates of Damascus. No one yet knows their intentions. While the city leaders prepare for a parley, the citizens scramble, preparing for the unknown. Mariam is a primary character although not the main protagonist. She is thirteen years old. Hassan is seventeen. Alex, Mariam’s brother/escort, the story’s primary protagonist, is in the background of this scene.
Mariam burst through the agora’s entrance, her brother trailing behind. The air still wavered with the day’s brilliance, but the stalls were mostly empty. Everyone had snatched up any supplies they thought would keep.
From his perch on the domed roof over the central fountain, the market’s lunatic monk proclaimed, “Thus says the Lord! He who remains in this city shall die by the sword, by the famine, and by the pestilence!”
Even so, Mariam’s heart danced as she strained to see into the shadows, spotting Hassan below the spice vendor’s faded red canopy. The food hawkers had likely done well that day, but may have nothing more to offer for days to come. The perfume and trinket merchants were packing, grumbling that their goods were no longer of interest. Many would have nowhere to go, no way to return to their villages, now that the gates were shut. They would either shelter with relatives or settle right there among the stalls.
Mariam broke away from Alex and wove toward Hassan as fast as she dared without drawing too much attention to herself. It would be unseemly for her to display her excitement even to Damascenes distracted by their fears.
She tucked her hair out of sight under her head wrap. As an unmarried girl, she need not conceal all of it, but doing so made her look older, more mature, and, as a Daughter of the Covenant—the virgin’s choir—she was held to stricter standards. Besides, hiding her hair showed off her cheekbones and kohl-rimmed eyes. At least her best features would still be enjoyed by others after she married, and if all went well, that marriage would be to Hassan.
The crazed monk leaped from the fountain, landing in Mariam’s path declaring, “He who goes forth to the Chaldeans shall live, and his life shall be to him for a prey, and he shall live!” To avoid him, Mariam stepped around a donkey munching cabbage scraps from a cart.
As she met Hassan, she saw that wonder on his face again and blushed. Would she ever get used to his attention now that she had it?
“Mariam.” Hassan sighed as he reached for her hands.
She allowed a brief touch, then pulled back. Nothing escaped notice in Damascus. Not even in the shadows of the market.
“I have come as you requested,” she said, diverting her gaze downward.
“My dove, I was anxious to see you.” Hassan tipped up her chin, forcing her to look into his dark eyes. “I have spoken to my father, and he has agreed to speak to your father.”
“Speak to my father?” Mariam asked. “But your father often speaks to my father. What do you mean?” She could not resist tormenting him a little.
“Mariam, of course I mean he is to speak to your father on my behalf.” He straightened his shoulders. “He will request that you be my bride.”
At these words, her vision swam, all the toying gone.
“Oh, but Hassan, my dowry is half that of a merchant’s daughter. You would—”
“Nikolas is a military veteran of reputation—a hero of Nineveh!” He threw out his arms as if in acclamation to anyone listening. “Of course, it was some time ago, but he is still celebrated across Syria. And, as the quartermaster of the garrison here—not a bad alliance for a merchant.” Hassan grinned. “You only know him as your father. But in truth, kinship with your family would be a strategic step for mine.”
“Oh, so now I am a bit of strategy, am I?” Mariam looked at him askance.
“Well, this IS Damascus.”
From beneath his woven sash, Hassan removed a small sack of ocher wool tied with a silk cord. Catching hold of Mariam’s hand, he placed the object there. His fingers lingered around hers just long enough for her to feel his warmth.
“What is it?”
“Open it. It is from my heart, which many waters cannot quench.”
Mariam untied the knot and tilted the bag. Into her palm flowed a strand of beads, deep blue as the evening sky, twinkling with golden stars, smaller gold beads accenting the blue like visual music.
Mariam swayed. The shimmering mosaics in the cathedral, with all their radiance, could not compare. This treasure was of the highest quality and rare. Of course, she owned a few trinket necklaces of clay, brass, and stone sold by the Bedouins, and the silver songbird from her father, but these beads were from a faraway land. They had come by caravan over vast deserts.
“I asked my father’s trader for the most beautiful necklace in Samarkand. I give it to you as a token of my commitment. Please tuck it away until our betrothal is official. I will have great pride when it is displayed around your neck, for all will know that you are mine.”
In Hassan’s field of vision, Alex was making hand signals, waving that their brief time was up. The market was clearing and it would not do to be suddenly conspicuous, attracting the notice of gossips. Hassan acknowledged his flapping friend and signaled to Mariam that she should withdraw. Reluctant, but obedient, she returned to her brother’s keeping. Her small but shapely form passed between the empty stalls and departed through the agora’s arch. Her essence lingered, inhabiting his senses like cool melons on a spring day. To think he had ignored her for most of her childhood and now thought of little else. Even while the terrors of war and siege arrived at their very gates, his greater care was to have her—as the poet longed for his beloved.
*Safely fended, Softly tended, With pearls and rubies and pads of gold, And gums of delicate odor in pyxes old, Spicy musk and aloes and myrrh— Sweet, oh, sweet is the breath of her.
Thanks so much for reading this little slice of adventure. Next week I am excited to tell you about two historical novels I found on Substack.
*This passage is from Translations of Eastern Poetry and Prose, by Reynold Alleyne Nicholson, 1922.
P.S. - Last Friday I crafted a response to another Substack writer’s challenge. (Thank you !) I filed it under “Off Topic” and did not send it as a newsletter but if you would like to see silly cat pictures, you can find those here.
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